Look at the picture. Can you imagine the salty fresh smell of the sea as you stand in the dunes? Maybe you can picture yourself standing in an orange grove, instantly conjuring that sweet heady smell of blossom.
Neuroscience demonstrates that the eyes are a window into the workings of the brain, with eye movements closely linked to memory, attention and decision making. However, the nose is in fact our most direct link to the brain!
Unlike any of our other sensory pathways, the olfactory bulb bypasses the thalamus (the messenger to the brain) and sends scent information at lightning speed to the cortex which is connected to our limbic system. This ensures an almost instantaneous relationship with our emotions and helps explain why scent is so evocative. Who hasn’t smelt a perfume or aftershave on someone and been instantly reminded of a loved one who wears the same scent?
We can also use scent therapeutically as a resource for safety and comfort during times of anxiety. It can help to encode a connection within our brain to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system helping us access that space of rest and digest.
Scent can also act as a sensory reminder – I encourage use of scent for home yoga practice, as it helps to promote a safe space to move mindfully and connect with our inner world. It can be used to get us into the “zone” instantly as the sense of smell bypasses the thinking mind, potentially making it easier to access a meditative state. So, to make online yoga more of a sensory experience why not try and find a ‘safe’ scent.
Imagine if you were unable to smell?
Loss of smell is mostly temporary however, it impacts quality of life in many ways; reducing connection to the environment around us, as well as limiting access to memories. The impact when loss of smell persists long-term can be devastating, with serious psychological consequences.
During these times of Covid the nose has taken centre stage in research, not only in terms of Nitric Oxide (please see previous post: Breathe with your mouth as often as you eat with your nose!) but also due to anosmia, the most common neurological syndrome associated with the virus.
In May 2020 anosmia was recognised as a symptom of Covid-19 in light of accumulating evidence demonstrating that 55% of patients experienced loss of smell. Research suggests self-reported smell loss is a better diagnostic indicator Covid-19 infection and patients are 27 times more likely experience smell loss than have fever, cough or respiratory difficulties.
A proportion of people develop Phantosmia, olfactory hallucination, where unpleasant scents take the place of normally delightful ones. Lack of research means few established treatments exist for regaining sense of smell. One option is smell training. Your nose, like any other muscle in the body, can be strengthened by giving it a daily workout with sniffs, not weights!
Did you know?
Smell is our only fully developed sense in the womb! It’s our most developed sense until age 10 when sight takes over. This means that because smell and emotion are stored as one memory, childhood smells tend to be the basis for smells you will like and hate for the rest of your life. This is why our sense of smell can be so emotionally charged, and for some upsetting, as it transports us directly to our memory bank.
CAUTION: if you are asthmatic, I would urge you not to use essential oils and to be cautious with any scents you are not already familiar with.