The Power of Positive Smelling

The Invasion of the Negative

It’s common to hear people complain that they are weighed down by negative thoughts or depressive mood-states. This can be especially true for individuals in high stress situations, including students preparing for exams or EPPP candidates trying to qualify for licensure.

But even when we don’t have stressful life circumstances weighing in on us, many people still find themselves dragged down by a barrage of negative thoughts that seem to take on a life of their own. This has become such a problem that many practitioners in the medical community are concerned about the health effects of toxic thoughts.

Although historical evidence shows that people have always struggled with toxic thinking, the phenomenon of negative mental chatter seems to be growing worse with each passing year. Evidence also suggests that Westerners are increasingly less happy, grateful and content than those in less developed nations, even though we live in one of the wealthiest cultures ever to have existed.

A World That Doesn’t Smell Right

I’d like to temporarily switch gears and make another observation that may seem completely unrelated. Most of us spend the majority of our lives in environments that are antithetic to natural smells.

Researchers at the University of Virginia found that the aroma from flowers are no longer being carried on the wind like they used to but are instead neutralized by pollutants. Their research, which was published in a 2008 edition of the journal Atmospheric Environment, showed that scent molecules produced by flowers in a pre-industrial environment could travel as far as half a mile from the flower. By contrast, in today’s polluted environment downwind of major cities, the scents of flowers may travel less than about 600 feet. This has led smell expert Avery Gilbert to lament that in our sanitized world, pungent smellscapes of the past are disappearing.

The vacuum created by the loss of natural smells has been filled with many artificial substitutes. Some of these substitutes are intentional, like perfumes and air-fresheners, while others come as unintentional byproducts of our industrialized lifestyle, such as the smell of gasses emitted through vehicle exhaust. Many of these artificial smells have become so ubiquitous that we often don’t even recognize them. By contrast, odors that would have been considered perfectly natural throughout most of human history, such as the smell of people and animals, are painstakingly banished from modern life.

Smell and Negative Cognition

Could there be a connection between the loss of natural aroma and the invasion of negative thoughts and mood-states that so many people increasingly struggle with? And if there is a connection, is there anything we can do about it?

It would be both simplistic and reductionistic to suggest a clear cause and effect progression between negative mind and mood-states and the loss of natural smells. This is because there are numerous psychological, social and physiological factors that are contributing to the culture-wide plague of negativity. However, what the research does suggest is that the assault on our sense of smell may be one of the many factors exacerbating the brains’ tendency towards negativity.

Moreover, the research also shows that you do not have to be a passive victim to this phenomenon, as there are specific steps you can take to reintroduce positive smells into your environment.

Positive Thinking Has a Smell

Every year there is more research showing a connection between aroma and positive thinking/ feeling/living, and conversely between the loss of smells or negative aromas and toxic thinking/ feeling/living. This research led NBC News to report in 2011 that ‘Scents affect thoughts and behavior.’

The academic literature on this subject is now so voluminous that many scholars are devoting their entire careers to studying the relationship between aroma and mood and cognition. In the last few weeks I’ve been dabbling in some of this research, and I came across the following fascinating facts:

    • Dr, Schiffman also found that negative odors led to an increase in bad moods. In 1995, the New York Times quoted Dr. Schiffman explaining that a group of people in North Carolina who live downwind of hog farms were “severely depressed, anxious and have less vigor.”
    • Japanese researchers tested the effect of a floral green aroma on subjects performing mental arithmetic, and then compared the results with a control group. The researchers found the group exposed to the aroma showed less stress activity in their prefrontal cortex, as well as less stress-related skin secretions.
    • Other Japanese research found that those who inhaled a lemon aroma made 54% fewer errors than those who sniffed plain air. Putting this research into practice, Tokyo’s Idemitsu Oil Development Co has created a system for pumping a citrus aroma through the ventilation ducts every 2 minutes. This is said to make the employees more productive, to put them in a better mood, and make them feel at home.
    • In a study at Rutgers University, researchers found that women who wore flowers exhibited the Duchenne smile, which is linked with positive changes in the brain. They also out-performed a control group in their willingness to engage in social activities they had previously put off. Amazingly, the women who received flowers reported more positive moods three days later. (This research was published in a 2005 edition of the journal Evolutionary Psychology.)
    • In a follow-up study at Rutgers,  Dr. Haviland-Jones arranged for flowers or pens to be handed out to random people during elevator rides. Those who received flowers moved closer to the other elevator riders and initiated conversation, while the people who received pens did not. Flowers, and presumably the aroma emanating from them, increased sociability and friendliness on an unconscious level.
    • Dr. Haviland-Jones’ research also found that the presence of flowers triggered happy emotions, heightened feelings of satisfaction, and had a positive effect on social behavior, including increased contact with family and friends. Participants who received flowers also reported feeling less depressed, anxious and agitated.
    • Summarizing recent scent research, an article on Mood Media observed that “It is overall accepted that a smell of a fragrance can influence mood, memory, emotions, stress, sustained attention and problem solving, friends choice, the endocrine system and the ability to communicate by smell without knowing it. The effects mentioned can be elicited both by consciously and subliminally perceived odors.” (For a review of the academic literature on this subject, see Chapter 10 in Olfaction, Taste, and Cognition.)
    • A 6 month study of seniors 55+ showed that those who received flowers out-performed a control group in memory tests. The group with flowers also showed an increase in genuine well-being.
    • Clinical studies have repeatedly shown a reciprocal loop between depression and loss of smell. In her book The Scent of Desire, smell expert Rachel Herz explains that “Depression can truly bring about olfactory loss” and visa versa. Although skeptical of some of the exaggerated and inconsistent claims of aromatherapists, when Herz analyzed 18 different studies for the International Journal of Neuroscience, she found that “The results indicated that various odors can significantly affect mood, cognition, physiology and behavior…” Referring to her own clinical research, Herz recounts that “My studies have shown that odors can literally be transformed into emotions through associations and then act as proxies for emotions themselves, influencing how we feel, how we think, and how we act…”
    • In 2007, the Washington Post reported that educators are increasing their performance through peppermint aroma. The paper cited research conducted at the University of Cincinnati which discovered that a whiff of peppermint or lily of the valley helped increase concentration.
    • Oxford researcher, Mikiko Kadohisa, found that odor had a remarkable effect on human emotions. In the publication ‘Effects of odor on emotion, with implications’, Kadohisa shared that the olfactory system “could be a very effective, often sub-conscious, driver of emotional responses. …. Human and complementary studies in non-human animals provide evidence that odors evoke emotion and autonomic state via pathways to the amygdala and OFC, and become incorporated into episodic memory via the hippocampus. In addition, it is suggested that some odorants which elicit emotion may have potential to treat patients with psychological problem such as depression.”
    • In 1995 a team of scholars published research in the journal Neuroimmunomodulation showing that exposure to citrus fragrance improved the mood of depressive patients to such an extent “that the doses of antidepressants necessary for the treatment of depression could be markedly reduced.” Moreover “The treatment with citrus fragrance normalized neuroendocrine hormone levels and immune function and was rather more effective than antidepressants.”
    • Dr. Susan Schiffman conducted experiments which found that use of pleasant odors could improve the mood of males in midlife, reducing tension, depression, anger, vigor, fatigue, and confusion. She was also involved in an experiment that piped scents through a subway car and then observed the behavior of riders in that car. The pleasant odors are said to have cut aggressive acts by as much as 40%.
    • In 1991, the New York Times reported that companies and universities were seeking mood-altering fragrance systems to enhance alertness. To achieve better alertness, people found a blend of peppermint, lemon, eucalyptus, rosemary and pine to be effective. To achieve relaxation, lavender and clove were used. To refresh, “citrus notes with pine and eucalyptus.”

I could continue all day sharing further examples of this type of research. The conclusion is that the sense of smell may be one of the most important—though overlooked—components to human well-being.

I Smell, Therefore I Feel

One of the reasons why aroma plays such a crucial role in human flourishing is that our sense of smell is the sense that is most closely tied with the area of the brain associated with emotion and memory. Both emotion and smell share the same network of neural structures in the limbic system, the most ancient and primal part of the human brain.  As David Myers explains in his book Psychology, “A hotline runs between the brain area that gets information from the nose and the brain’s ancient limbic centers associated with memory and emotions.” (For a scientific discussion of what happens in the brain when we smell different aromas, see the section ‘Olfactory processing streams in the brain’ in the article ‘Effects of odor on emotion, with implications.’)

Many people don’t realize it, but even what we perceive as flavor in food originates with the sense of smell. (For more information about this, see Anne Underwood’s Newsweek article ‘A New Book Explains the Science of Smell.’)

Because we don’t understand the important role that smell plays in human well-being, the institutions that ought be the most concerned about offering a welcoming and soothing aroma to troubled individuals, including hospitals, doctor’s offices, therapy clinics and psyche wards, often smell more sterile and “dead” of anywhere.

How Did We Get to This Point?

Throughout human history doctors have recognized the therapeutic properties of aroma. The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates reflected widespread understandings when he noted that “The way to health is to have an aromatic bath and scented massage every day.” By contrast, the modern practice of aromatherapy is often looked upon with skepticism by the medical establishment. As a culture in general, we are probably the least smell-conscious society ever to have existed on the planet. Why is that?

One possible explanation was suggested by Kurt Schnaubelt in the second chapter of his book Medical Aromatherapy. Schnaubelt showed that many of the industrial interests of the modern world have vested interests in working to diminish our natural sense of smell to make room for uniform flavors and fragrances. Research shows that are sense of smell is becoming so debased that people are coming to increasingly prefer synthetic substitutes to the natural aromas these substitutes are based on.

Another possible explanation was suggested in The Smell Report, published by the Social Issues Research Center. The problem, they argue, goes back to the period of history known as “the Enlightenment”, when philosophers marginalized the sense of smell as being primitive and brutish compared to the other senses.

“…the current low status of smell in the West is a result of the ‘revaluation of the senses’ by philosophers and scientists of the 18th and 19th centuries. The intellectual elite of this period decreed sight to be the all-important, up-market, superior sense, the sense of reason and civilisation, while the sense of smell was deemed to be of a considerably lower order – a primitive, brutish ability associated with savagery and even madness.

“The emotional potency of smell was felt to threaten the impersonal, rational detachment of modern scientific thinking. This demotion of smell has had a lasting effect on academic research, with the result that we know far less about our sense of smell than about more high-status senses such as vision and hearing.”

To show just how unprecedented these Enlightenment assumptions about smell really are, The Smell Report went on to compare our situation with that of other societies. They shared some fascinating observations about the important role smell plays in a variety of different cultures, ancient and modern. Smell has also played an important role in some of the world’s great spiritual traditions. (See Susan Ashbrook Harvey’s monograph about scent in the early church.)

Aroma and You

What does all of this mean for you practically? If you are feeling stressed, over-worked, anxious, or simply need a mood-uplift, here are a few suggestions of what you can do:

    • If you live near some woods, a meadow or a sea shore, take a walk in these places and make a point of noticing and taking in the different smells. See how many different smells you can notice. By deliberately focusing on the different aromas, your sense of smell will become more acute, according to research from the University of California Berkeley. Use this as a time to de-stress and focus on the positive things in your life.
    • If you live in a city and can’t enjoy the smells of nature, train yourself to notice the aromas that are still available, such as the fresh smell meadow a light rain, or the aroma emitted by flowers, or the smell of damp earth.
    • Get a diffuser and experiment with diffusing different essential oils, finding oils or combinations of oils that uplift your spirit and help you to maintain a positive outlook on life. Keep a journal of which aromas help you the most to cope with different challenges, from study related stress to anxious thoughts.
    • Use aroma therapeutically in conjunction with other methods of calming the mind, such as positive self-talk and gratitude meditation and cognitive reframing.
    • Leveraging the power of aroma for your own well-being through what Rachel Herz calls “odor-emotional conditioning.” This refers to deliberately working to associate certain smells with positive states of mind. For example, I use a mixture of the essential oils of Cedarwood and Vetiver (with a little Frankincense oil mixed in) while meditating on gratitude, compassion and peace. After doing this only a few times, my mind begins to associate this unique aroma with these healthy states of mind and mood. This enables the unique aroma to later be used as a trigger for well-being if I am stressed, anxious or depressed.
    • Consider visiting an aromatherapist and learning additional ways to harness the power of smell in your life.

Further Reading


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