“The Molecules of Connectedness” * Book Excerpt * Florian Birkmayer, MD

Aromatica Poetica is honored to present “The Molecules of Connectedness,” an excerpt from Essential Oils for Psychedelic Therapy Support:  An Introduction to the AromaGnosis Method by Florian Birkmayer MD. Florian gave us one of our first interviews—way back in 2017! That interview details his journey from his first exposure to aromatherapy in childhood and subsequent medical training in psychiatry at Columbia University, to his practice with clients—most of whom suffered from trauma and PTSD, to the creation of AromaGnosis with his wife Cathy Skipper. Florian’s deep knowledge of aromatics, brain chemistry, and alternative healing modalities offers a unique and fascinating approach to tackling trauma—individual and collective.

 

The Molecules of Connectedness

“When we change ‘I’ to ‘We’, even Illness becomes Wellness.”  – Malcolm X

Aromas can touch us on and reconnect us with all our bodies. What does it mean to touch and to be touched? To us humans, the obvious answer is skin to skin contact. But what if you are a sessile being, for example a tree? How do you touch then? If the molecules that constitute our skin are part of us, are the aromatic molecules we emit part of us? Human lovers communicate deeply and desire through their mutual smells. Do trees touch each other and us through the volatile aromatic molecules they release into the air we all share?

When we are touched by an aromatic molecule, the molecule literally binds to one or more specific receptors in our body. Not just in our nose. We have olfactory receptors, of different subtypes, in virtually every tissue of our body. We don’t just smell with our nose, we smell with every organ, with our skin, with our kidney, with our heart. This is one way aromas touch our physical body.

There are over six hundred genes in the human genome that encode olfactory receptors. And that is just the family of Olfactory Receptors (OR). There is another entire family of receptors called Transient Receptor Potential Channels (TRPC), which encode the feeling of coolness of mint and apparent heat of capsaicin and many other, as yet to be discovered, sensations.  This is another way aromas touch our physical body and at the same time our mental body by inspiring us to come up with models and evidence, e.g. research on receptors.

If you think of each olfactory receptor as the letter of an imaginary alphabet, imagine what complex poetry/’words’/ideas/archetypes you could form with such an alphabet. Our English alphabet pales by comparison. We have, most of us, become completely unconscious of smell. We’ve lost our instinct. Yes, some may eloquently talk about beautiful aromas, essential oils or perfumes, but that is an intellectual construct, using language. What if we were still native speakers in the language of scent? This would mean remembering aromas don’t just touch us intellectually, but emotionally and spiritually.

Why do we even have a sense of smell? Why do we have all these olfactory receptors? Since I was in medical school, I kept asking ‘Why do we have dopamine as neurotransmitter?’ Why this molecule and not another instead? Dopamine is not a very ‘sensible’ molecule to use as a neurotransmitter in a long-living human brain, since it forms a toxic breakdown product that accumulates in the brain. Why then use this molecule?

I came to realize that the reason we have dopamine and serotonin in our brains is that we inherited them from plants. Plants evolved dopamine and serotonin and the molecular machinery to make them millions of years before we ever walked the earth. In the same way that plants co-evolved with pollinators (e.g. bees) and developed aromatic molecules to influence the behavior of these pollinators, I believe that dopamine is there so that plants can influence our behavior—along with many other molecules, including aromatic molecules.

For example, all ‘drugs of abuse’ such as morphine, cocaine, are molecules that plants make and that increase dopamine in our brains. While they were in natural concentrations in plants and plant materials, they served a natural purpose, including healing, but then of course humans extracted and concentrated them and caused a disruption in the natural balance, that has had a profound impact on human history through addiction and other issues.  In the same vein, we could ask ‘Why do we have olfactory receptors?’ Again, I think plants wanted to make sure that they could communicate with us.

Aromatic molecules touch us at the smallest material level, the closest distance. I touch and I am touched. This is not just a metaphor.

In my work with people with addiction issues I learned that what underlies most addiction is psychological trauma. This includes not just abuse but neglect, not just personal but collective, not just the experiencer, but historical/inherited/epigenetic trauma. There are layers and layers of trauma, some of which we may be conscious of, but most layers of which are in our unconscious.

And of course, there is the inescapable trauma of the world, as the environment is being destroyed by human activity and neglect. The word trauma comes from the Greek and means cut or wound. Trauma doesn’t just hurt the body and the soul, but it also cuts us off from our spirituality, and our meaningful connections to the beings around us. Trauma literally cuts us off from our rich, natural environment and leaves us in a void, be it in the meaningless wasteland of cities and endless suburbs, nature cut apart, or in the prison of our suffering minds, addicted, seeking redemption, that bliss that we all remember, the Garden of Eden of connectedness.

It seems that history is just an endless story of trauma after trauma. The oldest stories we have, e.g. The Book of Job or the Epic of Gilgamesh, are full of trauma. I think we humans evolved storytelling as a way of trying to heal from and integrate trauma.

So much for a brief outline of trauma, being cut-off, being disconnected from nature and dissociated from Self. Now let’s look at aromatic molecules and why they seem so perfect for healing trauma. They are perfect, because they are the Molecules of Connectedness.

Aromatic molecules travel through the air that connects all living beings. In many spiritual traditions the word for spirit is same as the word for breath and air, e.g. pneuma in ancient Greek, ruach in Hebrew, etc. Even the English word awe carries this between its meaning and its sound–that is we make a slow, open-mouthed exhale, a spirited breath.

The first thing we do when we are born is that we inhale and the last thing we do as we die is exhale. The air we exhale is inhaled by others. Plants turn our exhaled carbon dioxide into oxygen which we in turn need to breathe. We are connected to all living things through the air we breathe.

The air is between and within all of us and forms a giant presence around and within us all, a great spirit that we are all part of. If spirit is air, then the volatile aromatic molecules could be seen as the ‘neurotransmitters’ of this spirit, or conduits, messengers within the spirit realm. In Alchemy this is Mercurius, the ever-changing messenger, reconciler of opposites, as hard to capture as a scent or the wind. Through their very nature, aromatic molecules reconnect us.

The opposite of addiction is connection. How perfectly we are touched and healed by these Molecules of Connectedness to heal the trauma that has cut us off.

Aromas touch all layers of the concentric circles, conscious and unconscious. We can’t not be touched; we can’t switch off the effect.

A lot of research and clinical use of aromatherapy focuses on the physical body, including many studies on wound healing and antimicrobial activity. There are countless examples.

There is some research on the emotional effects, i.e. how aromas touch the emotional body although it is mostly focused on relief of specific symptoms or diagnoses. Aromas can also be used to explore unconscious and hidden emotions. Certain essential oils reliably allow people to become aware of unconscious emotions, including hidden aspects of trauma and by beholding and feeling these emotions, transform them. “To feel is to heal.” Aromas that are masters of this are rose attar (Rosa damascena in Santalum album), wild vetiver (Vetiveria zizanioides) and Labdanum (Cistus ladanifer), which we refer to as the Master of Shadows.

On the emotional level aromatic molecules touch us in multiple ways. They evoke certain emotions and can rapidly shift our emotional state. In addition, they can highlight emotional blockages within us and bring emotions out of the shadow of our unconscious. When we are unconscious of certain feelings, we project them outwards onto others and Jung himself said that “the most important political and spiritual work we can do is to reel in our projections.”

In the mental bodies, aromatic molecules inspire and generate much research, a mental venture, in addition to the forming of schools and organizations. Aromas have had a profound cultural impact. For example, the Dutch got to occupy the Banda islands in the south Pacific, the original source of nutmeg, by swapping it with the British for an island that was much less important at the time, called Manhattan. Nutmeg, a spice cherished for just its aroma, had a profound influence on world history. What if the British didn’t colonize Manhattan and New York? The trade in coffee and other aromatic molecules continues to perpetuate colonialism. Human beings can clearly be mentally possessed by aromas and they have shaped history.

On the other hand, aromas can lead to mutual recognition, an ‘I am thou,’ which is part of the awareness of connectedness. Aromas have their own mental bodies, one of the layers of their wisdoms.

In the spiritual bodies, aromas have long been used as ceremonial incense, to pray, to connect, for meditation, for ritual, for invoking the ancestors and reliably give us that sense of awe. Blue Lotus was central to the spiritual practices of the Ancient Egyptians, along with countless perfumes and many still well-known aromatic substances were already made by them millenia ago.

Aromas touch the Collective Unconscious, for example as shown in the history and practices mentioned above. Aromas play an important role in cultures around the world, such as attars in ancient India and Persia and countless other examples.

In this collective realm, ancestral worship, practiced by all traditional cultures around the world, involves aromas, including marigold, tuberose and a variety of incenses. It is said that the dead eat with their sense of smell. Aromas reconnect the living and the dead and without this connection we cannot be truly holistically healed.

We can also use this model, the Concentric Circles, to explore how one essential oil touches us on all these levels. Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) has a wide range of physical uses, including clearing the respiratory tract. On an emotional level is can raise our mood and be uplifting and energizing. On a mental level is has long been known to help memory, which has also been supported by research. On a spiritual level, it brings grace to our lives. As its name implies, the dew (ros) of the sea (marinus) rises from the surf like Venus, it reawakens us to spirit in matter, grace in suffering and was highly revered by the alchemists since it represented the approaching conjunction, the goal of the alchemical process. It was the 16th century alchemist Raymond Llull who first distilled rosemary essential oil. On the collective level, there is much lore about and recipes with rosemary in different cultures, from grief to love.

In summary, aromas reconnect us. They are ‘ecodelic.’ Aromatic molecules are the Molecules of Connectedness, and we all deserve to feel reconnected.

 

—About the Book and the Author—

The cover of "Essential Oils for Psychedelic Therapy Support". Below the title, it reads "An Introduction to the AromaGnosis Method" and the author's name "FLORIAN BIRKMAYER MD" is displayed at the bottom in a yellow stripe. The background of the top half is a solid olive green color with the text in white. The bottom half of the cover features a photograph of several items on a table. There are three dark amber glass bottles of varying sizes, two with droppers and one with a label that reads "Labdanum Absolute". There's also a small clear glass vial labeled "HN Essential Oil". In front of the bottles, there's a small black chunk on a stone, a feather, and a piece of what appears to be a crystal or mineral. To the right, there's a large animal skull, possibly a sheep or goat, with prominent teeth and empty eye sockets.Psychedelic Assisted Therapy is getting more popular and showing great
promise for a range of psychological and life challenges. Using aromas mindfully is an ancient tradition and offers shifts in awareness and reconnection. In his new book, Essential Oils for Psychedelic Therapy Support:  An Introduction to the AromaGnosis Method, Florian Birkmayer, MD shares his long standing experience combining these two modalities in a practical, hands-on way. This appears to be the first book discussing the enhancements that scent can offer to psychedelic assisted therapy. It offers a holistic model of the psyche that is foundational for such work as well as practical suggestions to get started incorporating aromas.

Florian Birkmayer, MD is a Wounded Healer and former holistic psychiatrist who has pioneered the use of aromas in psychedelic therapy and by themselves, to help people get out of habitual patterns and live their personal myth. After a career in mainstream academic psychiatry and addiction treatment, he became frustrated by the overemphasis on pharmaceuticals to cover up symptoms. He received his bachelor’s degree in molecular biology at Princeton University, where he learned to question assumptions and discover the hidden gifts the shadow. He received his medical doctorate from Columbia University, which taught him how to think critically about ‘business-as-usual’ medicine.

For further reading, check out:

Individuation and the power of Scent: An Interview with Florian Birkmayer MD

The Shadow Sense – Forgotten yet Powerful

Plus, selected scholarly writings:

Birkmayer F. (2022). Essential Oils for the Wounded Healer: PTSD, Post-Traumatic Resilience and the Wounded Healer’s Journey. International Journal of Professional Holistic Aromatherapy. 11(3), p. 37-41.

Birkmayer F. (2021). Using Essential Oils to Enhance the Effects of Ketamine Psychedelic Therapy in Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Substance-Induced Psychosis (Two Case Reports). International Journal of Professional Holistic Aromatherapy. 9(4), p.15-22.

Birkmayer F. (2020). The Molecules of Connectedness. International Journal of Professional Holistic Aromatherapy. 8(4), p. 51-57.

Birkmayer F., Skipper C. (2018). “The Role of Aromatherapy in the Treatment of Substance Abuse and Co-Occurring Disorders”, chapter in Modir S. & Munuz G. (eds.) Integrative Addiction and Recovery, Weil Integrative Medicine Library, Oxford University Press.