Scent and Memory: Make it Healthy
We’ve all had the experience of being transported back in time from a simple whiff of something. I feel like I’ve entered a time machine back to the age of five in my grandmother’s garage when I smell a particular mix of scents that I still can’t quite describe–I can only say, it smells like my gram’s garage! I think it’s the reason so many women like to have a “signature scent”–a fragrance that they want to be remembered by. We know instinctively that nothing will bring the same subtle (or strong) rush of emotion in memory. It’s a way to not be forgotten.
Researchers know that odors don’t trigger memories that are any more accurate than the memories triggered by other stimuli, but odors do trigger memories that are more emotional, according to psychologist Rachel Herz, a Brown University professor who studies the psychology of smell. “A person may have no emotional reaction to seeing a photo of a loved one who died,” says Herz, “but that person may unexpectedly encounter the same smell particular to the loved one’s study–a combination of cigarettes and books, for instance–and feel like weeping.” She notes that “those who lose their sense of smell because of accident or illness also report a loss of emotional richness and, over time, a loss of emotional intensity toward life. Experiences are flatter, they report.”
When we think about scent, there are two basic categories: Those which we use to enhance our bodies or our environment, and those that occur naturally. The intentional use of fragrance has been practiced since antiquity, and has evolved into a mind-bogglingly huge business. For ages fragrance was made from natural materials and was exclusively expensive. In the late 19th century when synthetic fragrance was created (from coal-tar) in a laboratory, the perfumer’s repertory of scents to work with was expanded–and made creating fragrance much cheaper. Now, as anyone with sensitivity to synthetic fragrance can attest, it’s everywhere–most cleaning products, air fresheners, candles, personal care products, perfume…you name it. The emotional connection to scent is so strong–no way manufacturers are going to pass up on that hook.
Although memory can be sparked by both synthetic and natural fragrance, the synthetic ones go beyond provoking memory–they provide an array of potential adverse health affects. They are, after all, made from petroleum by-products and are widely considered toxic. With the advance of technology and production, fragrance derived from natural ingredients is no longer out of reach to all but the aristocracy! If we want to scent our environment or ourselves, we can do so with essential oils–beyond making things smell nice, essential oils support wellness too.
In Blissful Bathtimes (Storey, 2000), Margo Valentine Lazzara describes the healing effect of scent like this: essential oils give herbs, spices, fruits, and flowers their specific scents, aromas, and flavors. Each oil has individual benefits to which the mind, body, and the spirit respond. Almost everybody can benefit form the use of essential oils. Pure plant oils can improve your state of mind and generally enhance the quality of your life. What makes them beneficial is that they work in harmony with your body. Each oil has the ability to evoke different memories that can affect a person’s physical, emotional, and psychological levels.
Lazzara writes that scents “trigger memories because of their quick access to the limbic system in the brain. It is here that scents will evoke an emotional response, such as hunger or sexual appetite. They can help you recall long- and short-term memories. If a particular scent stirs up past or painful emotions and memories and causes you suffering, then you might want to avoid this specific scent. But I believe that it is good to be able to release this kind of hurt and pain rather than avoid it. Think about the scents that can bring about recollection of your experiences.”
We can take a many-pronged approach to making scent healthy. We can use natural fragrance therapeutically to deal with important memories–pleasant as well as painful–and we can use specific scents to work with our moods. (See our Guide to Essential Oils for more information on this.) But on a more practical level, we can make scent healthy by deciding not to use cleaning and personal care products that contain synthetic fragrance. We can make future memories that won’t make us sick!