Scent has a science to it, and yet it is almost like reading a romantic sci-fi novel, making us question why certain scents seduce our emotions. Is it love? Or is just a chemical reaction to vaporized molecules? Complex and intangible, this emotional sensation has accompanied us since birth. Scent triggers memories that awaken emotions, primed for therapeutic release. Its multifaceted and primal nature guides our emotional intelligence away from our logical, left-brain linearity to give us the freedom to explore our inner world.
The unsexy side to scent, scientifically speaking, is simply the result of our brains interpreting vaporized molecules coming together, yet it gives us thought-provoking, life-changing, emotions. Although, as any decent therapist will tell you, feelings are not facts.
Inhaling scent triggers a lightning-fast journey for tiny molecules through the nose to the olfactory system in the brain. This is the area where memories are held. The molecules make contact with a group of hundreds of nerves called the olfactory epithelium, which decode the odors and send a message to the brain. This message passes through the frontal lobe, limbic system, and cerebral cortex before returning to the olfactory cortex for recognition. The limbic system is responsible for storing memories and emotions, while intellect is found in the cerebral cortex. As scent travels through the most primitive regions of the brain, it provides insight into the mind-body relationship.
The sense of smell plays an important role in our mood and behavior. In 1991, a conference in Paris sparked a wild debate on the notion of sex pheromones, chemical compounds that could be used to communicate between species, first proposed by Peter Karlson and Martin Lüsher in 1959. Although the pheromone responsible for attraction has yet to be identified, one that induces menstrual synchrony in women is being studied for the potential of creating a scent-based contraceptive.
The complexity of smell makes it challenging to differentiate between artificial fragrances and natural essential oils. Chemists have further complicated this by creating synthetic chemicals identical to compounds naturally found in essential oils to mimic or enhance scent. Despite this, it is still possible to identify authentic aromas, particularly through the use of GC/MS technology.
As we gain knowledge about our olfactory sense, the emotional connections to odors, and the chemistry of plants to explain why a flower smells the way it does, we are beginning to understand that scent is actually just our brains deciphering vaporized molecules combining. However, it has the capability to bring us immense pleasure.