Thursday, October 16, 2014

Smelling is: Healing, Feeling, Sensing, Connecting...

What shamans, herbalists and aromatherapists have known for hundreds if not thousands of years, science only now beginning to acknowledge and prove. In a recent NY Times article titled "Smell Turns Up in Unexpected Places", Alex Stone reviews recent scientific discoveries pertaining to chemical sensors in other parts of our body besides the olfactory bulbs.

While this is not exactly identical to the experience of scent per se, it is not exactly a surprise from an evolutionary point of view. The olfactory bulbs originally developed as sensing organs to sample the fluid, liquid environment of the primal ocean where life has developed. Some even speculate, that from these first sensing organs predated our limbic system, and from it, the brain eventually evolved... In other words, "I smell, therefore I think" is not quite as far-fetched as it may sound.

Smell is, in a sense, an assessment of the chemical environment surrounding the organism. In every breath, the organism evaluates differences in the environment and gathers important information for its survival, such as: is there any danger (i.e. fire, toxins or predators) nearby? Is there food or water nearby?

Why would it be surprising, then, that other parts of the body would also be able to assess chemicals and molecules, and respond to its healing properties? If our entire nervous system depends on responses to hormones, why would anyone be in the least surprised that other organs in the body, such as the liver or digestive tract, have special cells dedicated to molecular sensing and identification?

And for those fascinated by the notion of pheromones: it is not in the least surprising either (though of course fascinating nevertheless) that the sperm cells use their "sense of smell" so to speak to locate the eggs in their existentialist race for life (or death).

Many people won't be able to quite pinpoint how smell affects them. But we can all feel it. Perfumers, aromatherapists, shamans, priests, witches and herbalists have been attuned to the healing properties of fragrant plants and substances with distinctive olfactory characteristics. It's great that science is now catching up to this and we can read explanations to this. But I am certain that all along, we all feel a strong visceral reaction to scent, and our skin (the largest organ in our body) needs to be treated with respect as it has an important role in absorbing some of those healing energies from our environment - including sun light (essential for developing vitamin D), pheromones from our own species, and the many fragrant gifts of nature floating in the air surrounding us, or intentionally rubbed onto our bodies in the form of healing ointments, oils and massage.

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