Olfactory Report 6: Scent as Medicine * Catherine Haley Epstein

Medicine and perfumery have their roots in nature; both started as the alchemy of plants. Why medicine has progressed beyond tinctures and extractions to pills, surgery, and radiation, while aromatherapy and perfumery have not, remains a mystery. Even though people find relief with aromatherapy interventions, it is difficult to validate and measure consistently. That said, there is plenty of historical evidence attributing emotions and feelings to scent. Scents were referred to as “depressing”, “inspiring and reviving,” as far back as 1690 (Essay no Health and Long Life, Sir William Temple). Aromatherapy as it has been described and developed, may still be sitting at the child’s table of science (just as art is); however, our minds are powerful and if you believe the lavender, cypress or opopnax is helping you relax, chances are, it in fact is.

Is it possible that our sense of smell is so profoundly fundamental to our well-being that it must remain a mystery? Is this why there has not been a culture around scent that has paralleled visual and musical arts? Is this why olfaction has slipped off the table of science for some time, only to appear in a fleeting way, and entirely too specifically for the psychologist’s and neuroscientist’s lab (e.g., for PTSD study or Smell-memory studies)?

Aromacology was a term coined in the late 1980s by Annette Green of the Fragrance Foundation and alludes to the attempt to have perfume make the same kinds of strides in research that pharmacology has. There are continual attempts to make fragrance functional and not simply a hedonistic accessory. Scent alone may be effective – we just don’t have a way to map our perceptions to a scent, nor measure the resulting benefit, if any. If aromatherapy is tied to massage, relief and relaxation are a likely result. The senses rarely work alone though so, it’s in the adding of a touch-based component touch alongside scent, that the aforementioned positive result becomes more plausible.

This past month, I tested out a perfume that claimed to be a “functional fragrance”. The advertising copy had me believe that if sprayed 3-4 times a day, it could relieve a myriad of symptoms and make me “calmer, more composed and less stressed.” Yes please!! I waited several days for the package to arrive, and when it finally did, I excitedly opened the package anticipating the cognitive function jolt my olfactory system would produce just moments after a squirt. Could this be as revolutionary as I am hoping? While the research and the perfumer have done a lovely job, I am sad to report that the scent reminded me of a mélange of Le Labo fragrances I encountered when I visited their location in New York’s City’s West Village several years ago. That’s not a bad thing but, the scent certainly did not do anything to my cognitive functioning but transport me mentally to that store, at that moment in New York City – nothing more, nothing less.

Scent is processed in the same area of the brain where emotional expressions reside, along with our sexual system. The amygdala or, tiny screaming almond as it has been affectionately referred to, oversees the “fight or flight” response; our very safety and existence revolves around it. Our chemical senses are processed by this ancient center, along with the processing system for our feelings of doubt, sex, fear, joy and love. This area, the limbic system, was once called the olfactory brain. Emotion and mood control is undoubtedly influenced by scent. But why are we failing with claims that one scent will do this, and another scent will do that? Years ago, Robert Tisserand – an educator, speaker and consultant on the benefits of essential oils – had a list of scents that he claimed could calm or stimulate and valerian was listed as a sedative. If you have smelled valerian, you know that it smells like dirty goat skin on a hot day, left next to an empty oil can – not relaxing exactly, more sensual perhaps. So, each of the scents carry weight of their times, their cultural baggage and the consumer’s inner emotional world. Another example Tisserand uses as an anxiety-relieving essential oil is petitgrain. When I smell petitgrain, whether alone or mixed with something, it is the olfactory equivalent of a squeaky toy taking up space for no apparent reason.

Aromatherapy intuitively understands the power of scent, where emotions may be manipulated given a scent or two or three. I appreciate the conviction of aromatherapists and the intention to heal using scents. That said, I am also a realist with a scientist’s brain for asking questions, and I must report that there are no experiments with olfactory material that proves their efficacy. Except for lavender. Barring some caveats*, lavender has been proven scientifically to be effective as a “relaxing” agent, as well as possible agent in curing some neurological disorders.

Bottom line: Scent is emotional, not intellectual. It is evocative, idiosyncratic, and deceptive. How have so many fragrances passed the test named “sea breeze” or “ocean air” while smelling of a chemistry class rag of molecules? There’s never an ocean in there but, our trusty imagination will fill in the holes with our own memories of sea scents. The less detailed the scent, the better it is for our imaginations. Thus, to relax, it is best to use scent so we don’t get bogged down with details. Instead, it can just shoot straight to the tiny screaming almond, then down to the subconscious mind, and help us slow down and recharge, or hurry up and move fast. It is dynamic mood control par excellence.

*Note: “Although it is shown that lavender may have a significant clinical potential either in their own right or as adjuvant therapy in different disorders, however, due to some issues, such as methodological inadequacies, small sample sizes, short duration of lavender application, lack of information regarding dose rationale, variation between efficacy and effectiveness trials, variability of administration methods, the absence of a placebo comparator, or lack of control groups more standard experiments and researches are needed to confirm the beneficial effect of lavender in the neurological disorders..” (Koulivand et al, 2013)


—About the Author—

Olfactory Report Volume 6 card with red cross graphic.CATHERINE HALEY EPSTEIN is a multi-disciplinary artist, award-winning writer, designer, and curator. She wrote a book titled Nose Dive (2019) which explores the intersection of creativity with the science and anthropology of scent. She is the co-founder of the Odorbet, a growing vocabulary for our noses which resides online and in a growing database offline for now. Articles of note include “Primal Art: Notes on the Medium of Scent”, Temporary Art Review (2016). She writes about contemporary art and practice and culture at her platform Mindmarrow. She conducts workshops on the use of scent in creative practices, advises companies on scent-related projects, and continues to collaborate with artists and writers on unique initiatives that explore intersections between art and other disciplines. She is currently a candidate for her master’s at Northwestern University. You may follow her on Instagram @mindmarrow, or email her at catherine@mindmarrow.com with questions on the nose front, or if you are interested in contributing to the Olfactory Report!

Read Catherine’s previous Olfactory Report, “Scent as Protagonist,” which examines scent’s connection to race, class, and the perception thereof.