Updated: Jul 8, 2019
Do you ever catch the hint of a smell and the next thing you know you're engulfed by a rapturous memory from your past? Eyes glazed over and motionless, you're now emotionally ensnared and the trillions of cells in your body realign like microscopic soldiers determined to match your historical rhapsody. Your mind, your body, your limitless soul, inescapably highjacked with a passionate refusal to return to the present moment. And then, as the nostalgic voyage begins to fade, you furiously thrash, grasping at the deliciousness that's left you breathless and beguiled.
Oh, uhh, yeah, me neither; totally hypothetical question.
What if I told you that we're designed to experience just that?
Stop and Smell the Roses*
In this very moment, you're surrounded by chemicals in the air called odorants, that instead of being consciously detectable are wafting about without incident. We call these ambient smells - they fall away into the background in order to allow you to pick up on new, novel, or potentially dangerous odors. You may remember the last time you returned home from traveling for a few days or more and you were struck by peculiar smells all around that you didn't notice before. It's more likely that your smell awareness has changed rather than the actual smells in your home. Your nose, once accommodated to the unique aroma of your home, is now more keenly aware of its actual smell to others.
At the time of this publishing, holiday season is in full throttle and the smells of cinnamon, cranberry, pine, and baked goods dominate my attention when I walk into retail stores. Retailers, aware of the powerful association between smell, nostalgia, and motivation to spend money, are hip to the psychology behind it. I don't mind, I know how it all works. And, so will you after we explore together the fascinating world of your sense of smell.
The sense of smell, called olfaction, involves the detection and perception of chemicals floating in the air. Chemical molecules enter the nose and dissolve into mucous attaching to a postage stamp sized membrane located in the back of the nose called the olfactory epithelium. The receptor cells of the epithelium are small hairs called cilia on the nasal passage side (input signal) and an axon on the brain side (output signal to the brain).
Once airborne, chemical molecules bond to the cilia, an electrical activity is transmitted to the olfactory bulbs located behind the nasal cavity in the brain. The olfactory bulb transmits signals to the olfactory cortex, limbic system (primarily the hippocampus, amygdala, and hypothalamus), and the cerebellum. The limbic system is a fist-sized collection of structures in the middle of your brain that are associated with memory and emotion (more on this in the next section). All senses pass through the brain’s interpretive center and are sent to the opposite side of the brain for processing, except for smell. These additional steps cause a delay in reaction, for this reason, it's believed that smell is our oldest sense and perhaps most associated with survival. We need to smell the smoke before we see the fire, feel the heat, or hear the snaps and pops.
So, the next time you go shopping, notice that as you have to process the things you see or hear, what you smell evokes emotions immediately and can be the difference maker if you stay in the store and shop some more. Fortunately for us, knowledge is power.
What does a cat have to do with our sense of smell? I used to have a cat named, Amygdala. We called her Miggy. She was named after an almond-shaped cluster of nerves in our brain commonly referred to as the fear center. But despite seeming obvious, she wasn't named after the term 'fraidy cat'. Rather, I've always been intrigued by the emotional memories of cats and dogs. It's fierce. A cat never forgets an energetic dog or a kind human. And they go on and on in life sniffing at the air, searching for threats or pleasurable opportunities.
As we discussed, the olfactory bulb is closely connected to the hypothalamus, amygdala and hippocampus, all located in the limbic system. The hypothalamus is an organ in the brain responsible for regulating a variety of bodily functions such as growth, sleep, sex, hunger, emotional responses, and more. Odorant messages flow from the hypothalamus to the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain that’s responsible for consolidating memories. If our memory recognizes that aroma making its way to your room as, let's say, the smell of tacos cooking, our hypothalamus sets off a cascade of chemicals through the body to prepare us for dinner. Mmmmmmm, tacos.
The amygdala is another first line of defense that receives an odorant message directly from the olfactory bulb and if it interprets that message as a threat, it will set off a series of alarms in the brain and body to respond to the threat. It's essential to our ability to feel certain emotions and to perceive them in other people. The amygdala is the seat of novelty — your first time at the ocean, smelling that salty, fishy air; the mouth-watering aroma of fresh baked cookies; or the mix of corn dogs, funnel cakes, and farm animals at the county fair.
This is key: the amygdala doesn't recognize a difference between perceived threats and actual dangers. It doesn't have the higher faculty functions of the frontal lobe such as thinking flexibly or reasoning because if the threat is real, you may be dead before you can reason about it. As a consequence, it often triggers false alarms and potentially problematic reactive behavior.
Once, many years ago, while cozying up to a movie with a gaggle of friends, I smelled the most beautiful aroma in my flat near Ocean Beach in San Francisco. The smell was similar to incense which I burned often but smokey like a warm winter fire. After what seemed like a way too long time, it dawned on me that none of us lit a fire, and none of us lit incense or candles. We soon learned that one among us attempted to flick a nearly finished cigarette into the fireplace and missed, the butt landing on a stack of newspapers just outside the fire screen. But it wasn't so much the blazing newspapers that gripped me for years, it was the random container of used motor oil that, for some really regrettable reason, was just beneath them, seconds away from incineration. Smelling like melted plastic and petrol once I got closer.
Our sweet, ratty old flat nearly burned to the ground in part because my brain miscalculated. I smelled smoke — and so often smoke means fire, a potential threat to my survival. Except, in this situation, my constant use of incense and candles eventually tricked my brain into inhibiting my fear response to the smell of smoke, especially this pleasurable smelling smoke. Fortunately, we acted quickly and the fire was out in no time. The apartment still filled with smoke, and my amygdala now on overdrive was busy encoding a new fear memory. This emotional memory forming through the pairing of my delight in the pleasurable smoke and my Sunday evening chill time with friends and a movie. Pleasantly smelling smoke previously evoked feelings of security, home, safety, and in the years following, it became laced with subtle tendrils of fear any time I burned incense, lit a candle, or made a fire in the fireplace at home. Menacing hypervigilance in the presence of fire and smoke in my own home. Two things not previously paired together but for many years, nearly inseparable.
This is called fear conditioning. Fear conditioning (FC) is a variation of classical conditioning, the type of associative learning pioneered by Ivan Pavlov in the 1920s (dog food + bell = salivation. Bell alone after repeated exposures to the reward of food = salivation). In FC, two responses, one neutral and the other aversive (unpleasant), are paired through an intense emotional event or repeated exposures resulting in the neutral response triggering a fear reaction. When this works well, it's great! We learn that touching a hot stove is a really bad idea, or spraying perfume in your mouth is gross and I probably shouldn't do that again (this never happened, lol). But when the emotional event is intense or repeatedly unpleasant, we can trigger a stuck stress response resulting in perpetual or episodic fight, flight or freeze. Ultimately, zapping our energy, pummeling our immune system, and crippling our ability to live our best life.
For those who suffer from symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, certain smells can be wrathful. After a car accident, many describe the smell of burning tires, gasoline, or oil as triggers of an immediate fear response. Their bodies flooding with stress hormones and seized by the grip of fight, flight or freeze. Some can't live in big cities where there's a gas station on every block, and cars lined up in traffic, conditioned fear odors flooding their cilia and limbic system. In order to avoid the fear response, many alter their lives dramatically, develop phobias to people places or things, and turn to drugs or addictive behaviors to numb out the immobilizing effects of the conditioned fear. We'll learn how to use our sense of smell to liberate us from the fear/stress conditioning in the following 2 sections.
For now, let's return to my dear, sweet, late Miggy. What is it about cats that they never seem to forget their initial emotional experience with an unpredictable, tail pulling toddler, or a benevolent postal carrier?
Cats sense of smell guides them to prey, tells them if food is edible or toxic, where you’ve been, and even allows them to find their way home if lost. They have 200 million scent receptors in their nasal cavity, significantly more than humans do, resulting in a more acute sense of smell than humans. Although emotional memories are not the most accurate, they tend to be the most indelible. Studies show that a cat's long-term memory may last as much as 200 times as long as a dog's, but unlike dogs, they're highly selective about what they remember. Not surprisingly, cats recall only what benefits them (stinkers!). They love fiercely, they react with freight fiercely, there doesn't seem to be a grey area unless they just straight up disregard you.
To pull it all together, a cat's prefrontal cortex is not nearly as developed as a human's, that's why they can't reason in the same way we can. In humans, the prefrontal cortex has a dialogue with the amygdala when a threat is present and a fear response is elicited. The amygdala says, "Ahhh, freak out!" Then, the prefrontal cortex considers it, "Let me think about that, I could freak out, or maybe that's just too much and I should just chill out instead?" In cats, this dialog doesn't occur because the lights are mostly out in the prefrontal cortex, leaving the amygdala to reign free. So the, "freak out," is on, and the male cat is spraying all over your furniture. Moral: don't mess with a smelly cat.
I Smell Smoke*
Something I haven't mentioned but is critical to discuss before we learn how to use your sense of smell to heal, is that a huge component of the things in life blocking your pleasure — fear, trauma, unfinished business, shame, doubt, hostility, mood fluctuations, etc, are buried deep in a part of your brain that is beneath your conscious awareness. You may be familiar with the famous quote from Robert Frost, "the only way out is through." This is one of the truest things I know.
The most effective way to heal all those things holding you hostage is to discover how to interrupt the constant signaling of stress in your body. In many, stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, continuously churn out even when there is no threat present. It's your body's way of trying to save your life, but it's a glitch in the design. We need those stress hormones in moments of stress, both healthy and in crisis. They just don't do us much good pumping through our system when we're trying to fall asleep at night, study for an exam, or connect with the ones we love. In order to shut down those stress hormone factories, we must learn to unlock the unconscious emotional brain and break apart the bounded associations that are preventing our experience of pleasure. Once free, you will unleash an avalanche of feel-good chemicals that were otherwise blocked by the stress. Doesn't that sound wonderful?
It takes courage and commitment to invite past pain into the present moment. It can also be harmful if you attempt it without a plan. Most talk therapy can be a re-traumatizing experience that actually strengthens the stress inside and even amplify it. By repeating your story over and over without the benefit of tapping deeply into your emotional brain, we're just reminding ourself of our story without reprieve. This leaves us in a victim mode, unable to move forward, captive by our past. Language and cognitive functions are high in the brain, they just don't get deep enough. Talking and thinking tend to swirl above the surface of the source of the stress and we're left with analysis paralysis, or worse, more stress. There are many useful reasons to talk with someone else, the potent unlearning of stress responses is just not one of them.
In order to release the grip of stress in our systems, we must bring our body back to the state it was in when that stress became encoded. I remember how my body felt that evening in my flat when the smoke signaled an actual threat. For years, any time I smelled smoke or burning plastic, my body would trigger an almost identical set of stress responses as if it were happening right then. Today, it's just a memory and my body doesn't respond in stress. I've done the deep work to create a new story around it and liberate me from its chemical highjacking. I survived, all my friends were alive, my flat was completely intact, and the amount of compassion I feel for my younger self nearly brings tears of love for that impressionable 27-year-old.
After training and being certified in many trauma based interventions over the past few decades, my experience with Emotional Brain Training (EBT) has been by far the most effective, easy to use, and fun. To define EBT as a trauma intervention is limiting because not everyone relates to their past as traumatic. However, most of us want to live our best life, feeling present, more connected, aware of our surroundings, and able to act thoughtfully, without the delay of an overly distracted mind. EBT provides a way to manage through stressful situations and experience more pleasure in life. Who doesn't want that? Yes, I know, I know, this is a shameless plug for an organization I work with — but I can't keep all the goodness to myself. In case I've piqued your curiosity, learn more here: ebtconnect.net
She Smells So Nice*
Your sense of smell can both open up your way towards unlocking the emotional brain and get you through it, back to yourself.
As we discussed, odors are one of the most powerful initiators of our body's conditioned stress response. AND, that's what we need to access in order to come into contact with all those blocked fragments of the stress trapped in our emotional brain. One way to get there is to deliberately expose yourself to an activating smell, coupled with an emotional regulation tool to guide you back to yourself. When you're done, you may want to add another scent that is calming or uniquely pleasant to you. Repeating this over time will bring you lasting, sustainable results. Keep it simple, keep it fun! But do it often because our brains change through repetition.
Healers have used the powers of specific aromas from nature’s flowers and herbs for as long as we've been on this planet to enhance our health and well-being. Did you know that in addition to the odor receptors in the nose, approximately 150 more can be found in internal tissues such as those of the skin, mouth, heart, liver, sperm, and gut? Doesn't that blow your mind? We are still in the infancy of beginning to understand how influential smell is to our lives, and thus, it's potential to heal is still to be discovered.
Aromatherapy is a term coined in the 1920s, by a French chemist named Rene Maurice Gattefosse to describe the practice of using essential oils taken from plants, flowers, roots, seeds, etc., in healing. The oils capture the plant's scent and flavor. Unique aromatic compounds give each essential oil its characteristic essence. Certain oils have almost universal healing potentials, while most are experienced differently depending on the individual. No two people smell exactly the same or respond the same to a smell. If the idea of using aromatherapy appeals to you, it's helpful to have a general guide of what each essential oil is commonly intended to heal or support. However, YOU are uniquely positioned to know if something is pleasant and healing for you, or unpleasant and gross. So take your time, play around with it, what may seem pleasurable in the first few minutes may cause a headache with longer exposure. Just like prescription medicine, essential oils are dose dependent based on your unique constitution.
Without a doubt, one of the best ways to experience the pleasure of smell is to do it in the moment. Experiment with it and begin with the obvious sources of smell such as food, soil after a fresh rain, flowers, plants, and fresh laundry. Then, take it further to less noticeable smells such as the smell of your own skin, that of another's, the ambient air around you, etc. Consider the smells of your childhood that bring up a feeling of security inside. How about more recent years - maybe you moved to a new city and the smells are different, which ones are pleasing?
The possibilities are limitless. You are currently sitting, standing, or laying down in the most sophisticated, infinite collection of medicine and healing potential we have available on this planet. YOU.
Enjoy yourself, experience the pleasures of you.
In gratitude and health,
* Video links to the song titles included in this blog:
That Smell - Lynyrd Skynyrd
Stop and Smell the Roses - Mac Davis
Smelly Cat - Pheobe Buffay, Friends
I Smell Smoke - Johnny Winter
She Smells Nice -The Doors
I'm Arinn Testa, your forever devoted companion and lover of all things. With a husband that humors me, three kids that humble me, a wild dog that exhausts me, and an adorable hamster – who loves me the most, I'm constantly looking for opportunities to bring health and healing into our lives that are easy and fun. Sometimes the process is neither easy or fun, so hopefully I can short cut some of that for you and share what I've learned along the way. I'm the Director of Research for Emotional Brain Training and facilitate brain based interventions as a Master trainer for individuals & groups — connecting with people from all over the globe! To learn about how to create more natural pleasures in your life and to clear away the stress that blocks our feel good chemicals go to ebtconnect.net or visit arinntesta.com