How does a whiff of pumpkin pie transport someone back to their grandmother’s Thanksgiving table? Or the smell of a fresh topsoil instantly bring back the heartache of a long-lost man’s-best-friend? There is actually a scientific reason why certain smells can trigger strong memories and emotions from the past to resurface in our minds. Understanding how the brain and sense of smell work help to explain the science behind emotional oils.
How the Sense of Smell Works
By definition, the sense of smell is a chemical sense because it enables us to detect chemicals in our environment. With far more receptor sites for smell than any other sense, our sniffer is 10,000 times more sensitive than our other sensory organs. This gives us the ability to differentiate among thousands – if not millions – of different odors. Here’s what happens in the process of smelling:
- Odor molecules in the air reach the nostrils and dissolve in the mucus on the roof of each nostril.
- Beneath this mucus layer, smells are transmitted to receptor cells that detect the odor.
- The olfactory receptor neurons transmit the information to the olfactory bulb located at the back of the nose.
- The olfactory bulb directly connects to the limbic portion of the brain, which perceives odors. This highly-specialized portion of the brain also houses the amygdala and hippocampus. These specialized areas house our emotions, memories, and feelings.
- These brain centers perceive odors and simultaneously access memories and their associated feelings and emotions. This triggers memories of people, places, or events associated with specific smells.
Smell and Memory
The reason smell can trigger a memory or feeling so effectively is that other senses, like touch and taste, must travel through the body via neurons and the spinal cord before reaching the brain. So smell is the only sense with direct access to our brain. In addition, smell is the only sense perceived by the limbic portion of the brain. The processing of memories and emotion takes place in this region.
We Just Took Essential Oils to Another Whole Level
When I first learned about essential oils such as Forgiveness, Hope, Believe, and other “feelings” oils, I did not put much faith in their ability to work as their names claim. For example, the Young Living website describes Hope essential oil this way:
Hope essential oil is a unique blend that helps you reconnect with optimistic feelings of strength and grounding.
My initial thought was that I would rely on the Lord for my hope, thank you very much. While I still proclaim that my hope does indeed come from the Lord, I have come to learn that chemical constituents in this oil react with specific molecules in the limbic portion of the brain and actually trigger emotions of optimism and strength. With a background in biology and chemistry, this gets my attention.
Most of you reading this are probably already using essential oils and loving the benefits of them. Hopefully you are even discovering that a single oil can have multiple advantages because of the amazing chemical complexity in each tiny drop. You have probably learned that essential oils can offer support to every single system in our bodies. So why do so many “oilers” dismiss the idea of how oils can benefit us emotionally? It is okay to use oils for common ailments, first aid, and even some more serious health concerns, but it is taboo to suggest that an oil can support our emotions and feelings?? I, too, once thought this way, until I studied the chemistry of how the oils work in our brains, and even more so when I tried some of them.
Let’s Get One Thing Straight
The feelings oils do not replace a relationship with the Father. After all, the Father Himself designed essential oils to bring us closer Him. What is even more mind-blowing is how essential oils can actually assist us in releasing damaging negative emotions and accessing those feelings and emotions that help us connect with Him more deeply. So if using an oil can “activate” your physical brain to encourage a desired emotion, imagine how the power of your prayers can be magnified to activate your subconscious mind, where your beliefs are seated!
What Have You Got to Lose?
If this is a new idea to you, or if you are like I was – skeptical and doubtful about the emotional benefits of oils – I urge you: put aside your doubts, fears, and concerns. Prayerfully seek the Father and see what He has to say about using an essential oil that He created to support your emotions. Put on a dab of Believe and open your mind and heart to hear from the Lord. Then just let Him speak to you.