Friday, 5 February 2016

The Wonder of Smell by Jan Kusmirek

It has long been my contention that aromatherapy has slowly drifted away from its roots. Those around me know that whilst I value chemistry highly, l have never subscribed to the view that the therapy depends upon it or the view that chemistry should dominate it unless used in purely allopathic terms taking a very orthodox view.

The modern world has worked successfully in drawing little boxes around specialities. Aromatherapy too, I feel, is being inexorably drawn to this position. Insisting on frameworks sometimes forces us into such a view. For example in some countries a body worker is not trained, qualified, allowed etc. to work upon a face. This is the province of another department, perhaps a beautician or aesthetician. The words vary but the ideas are the same.
Orthodox medicine is riven by such boxes. The idea of a qualified multi disciplinary practitioner is quite abhorrent to certain sections of the community. Similarly the idea of a multi role essential oil like Lavender is quite beyond the comprehension of those more used to targeted activity by identified key chemical components. At the risk of getting my head shot off, I would say that aromatherapy is beginning to go wrong because it is loosing sight of its origins. After all the word starts with aroma and this implies the sense of smell.

In reviewing some courses the other day and talking to some student visitors to our premises here in Glastonbury it struck me that they were being taught a lot of theoretical information about essential oils - what they are supposed to do and so on. Most of them have read the various text books and some of the students were a little jaundiced because they were beginning to see that a lot of the work is rehashed and perhaps by people who don't have so much hands on experience as one would think.

It struck me that the sense of smell and our attitude towards aroma is rarely discussed and this is quite possibly due to the fact that many writers are seeing things from a purely academic view point rather than an experiential one. I have always enjoyed the work ofTricia Davis who has ranged far and wide in views on aromatherapy, covering everything from angels to chemistry. And why not? Marcel Levarbre introduced some fascinating ideas on morphogenetic fields, Kurt Schnaubelt takes us to more interesting dimensions in chemistry and at least Rosemary Caddy makes it look pretty and enables us to calculate at least the safety aspects very easily.

What, however, of the nose? Most of the courses I was looking at had consigned the idea of the nose to the anatomy and physiology section. So the student was being given as much information about nerve gaps and spinal ganglia as they were about the olfaction process. The same old ideas were churned out about the nose and not in a very inspiring way. Little if any attention was being given to what odour molecules may do or the impact that they have. I think this is a missed opportunity.

Our training here lays a lot of emphasis upon the qualities that the nose can pick up. One of our most popular events is called a Lavender Day in which people are given the opportunity to smell 40 -50 Lavenders from different companies, different parts of the world, different altitudes etc. This is a learning curve, not in the analytical sense but in the effect sense. Folk quickly learn to differentiate between the common industrials and those with a little more. Suddenly price points make more sense and equally the student begins to realise that despite very similar chemistry, the impact of an oil can be quite different. I mean by impact, its ability to have an effect - the effect can be emotional, the effect can be to do with the immune system or something even more direct. It's one thing to say in a text book that the sense of smell are tastes but it's quite another to get a class to suck a sweet jelly bean and then to hold their nose! Fun can be had too with wine tasting or even honey tasting. It's a sterile world and few people have the opportunity to really think through the fabulous detection instrument we call the nose. We must think of it as a communicant system. We must give it more credibility than perhaps we do. The text books I have seen generally refer us to a stereo-chemical approach to the nose. That means that an odour molecule has a specific shape that is reflected and found by the villae or nerve endings of the brain in the olfactory bulb and that if the molecule fits the shape, almost like an enzyme, a certain reaction or activity occurs. What is not often said in text books is that the sense of smell or olfaction is still at a theoretical stage. Like many things in the human body, we are not exactly sure how it works.


Most text books also refer to a vibrationary approach. This is sort of suggested by some of the perfumer's phraseology for using musical ideas to express smells- the notes of perfume. This whole idea is currently under review and certainly fits well with ideas behind aromatherapy. It is not to say that stereo-chemistry does not exist, of course it does and it is evident that this is one of the pathways of communication but not necessarily the only pathway, the only right way. The problem with the sense of smell is that it is individual and as any of our textbooks will tell us, connected to memory. Therefore our memories are individual. However if we explore the ideas that Levarbre put forward in relation to morphogenetic field the influence of mind or memory can be extensive therefore odour can not only be a communicant in this area but also a modulator, transmitter or something similar. Such ideas are not fanciful. Molecules have electrical properties and it is only in very recent times that our brain waves have been taken out of the closet of the fantastic and been taken seriously.

Coco Chanel said "The most mysterious, the most human thing, is smell". Certainly the idea of mysterious fits my experience in aromatherapy. Not every client does what the text book says they should! Nevertheless most seem happy and the treatment effective, even if it is obscure. This is a nightmare for those who love the double blind trial. Philosophers, too, have written quite a lot about the sense of smell. Rousseau seemed not to value it too highly, linking it most closely with imagination rather than truth. Nietzsche on the other hand would be more happy with the thinking that smell is the proverbial sixth sense - the sense of intuitive knowledge.

Education in aromatherapy is, in my opinion, a little sparse on the subject of aroma. A little research shows quite different attitudes to the sense of smell developing over centuries. Whilst we may teach that Egypt or Greece or Rome had a reliance on or love of odours and perfumes, little attention is given to the reason why or the influence that aroma had, not in a commercial or economic sense but in an emotional or health status sense. Why did odour or the sense of smell become devalued as Christianity advanced? Is there some linkage between the two and if so why? How was it that when analysis became our watchword and Descartes or Newton our idol did the sense of smell run out of the window? How is it that our poets kept perfume alive?

These are interesting questions that we in Glastonbury have attempted to explore and get people thinking about. After all, are we brave enough in aromatherapy to suggest that smell alone can help "cure" a disease or change an imbalance or promote well being? One would hope that the answer is "yes" but surprisingly it is not always the case and increasingly the literature refers to the chemical action through ingestion. This is loosely based on what we now term the French model as opposed to the Anglo Saxon model which had different ideas at its origins.

One argument that surrounds the understanding of the sense of smell is whether all responses to it are learned or not. Are some responses entirely intuitive or perhaps genetically encoded? Most scientists working in this area would think not but many aromatherapists think so. A little work has been done in this area, trying through sensory deprivation to get folk to smell smells that they have certainly never smelt before!

About the most interesting thing to me that emerges from such experiments is that when a smell is passed under someone's nose they don't acknowledge it, they don't smell anything but next time round they recognise it. This perhaps is a good example of why the Japanese use the phrase "listening" to the nose, or listening to the incense and smell as in the Kohdo ceremonies.

It would be good to think that aromatherapy, rather than leaning towards an orthodox view continues towards the trend of promoting the ideas of communicant molecules and individual adaptation to received odour rather than the already much travelled routes. After all it is we in aromatherapy who are seeing the results. No, they are not measured in scientific terms and indeed it is very difficult to imagine, based on my experience, how this could be done. The interchange between the person and the aromatherapy treatment I find increasingly individual. This may not be so apparent or noticed in the aesthetics field or beauty field but it is certainly noted by those with immune system problems or those with certain mental instabilities and those suffering from exhaustion. However these effects are not limited to those with a "medical" condition. Most of us are totally familiar with individual responses to stress, relaxation, sleep etc. Common problems but not ailments.

In each of these situations the sense of smell itself seems to be the determining factor. Most of us in practice have had the experience of seeing someone enter a meditative state by simply playing with an essential oil, taking infinite pleasure from it, although the word pleasure may not be the word the client or we would use, although they feel it's "done" something good

The something is entirely indefinable, something not exactly easy to track or test. But such a simple event has turned the corner in recovery of well being or homeostasis. As with homeopathy, you can't trial the insubstantive.

The eye and ear rely upon energy to bring about a response. Our smell capability is said to work upon units of matter not energy. Current thinking leads us to believe that certain molecules fit, stick, hit target sites into which odour molecules are distributed into a receptor cell. Wright's experiment with red and white clover seems to fit this. It is something we can do. Clover smells like clover whatever colour however sniff the white one first and the red has no odour. Try the other way round and we can smell the white which means a few more odour molecules in the white variety.

Teudt's ideas, which have always attracted me, suggest that the molecule at an atomic level obviously vibrates and it is this inhalation that triggers the receptor. Leaning on the view that true wild Lavender has a certain something that the industrialised versions do not, the idea is appealing. The problem is that biologists have not been able to identify any detectors in the smell system for such "vibration"

Both ideas lead us to towards the conclusion that even a very minute or subtle change in the configuration or shape of the molecule may have an enormous effect upon the character of the odour or fragrance. One thing is for sure although text books show us shapes and related receptors they are still hypothetical - we don't actually see them. Next we don't really know what happens to the molecule when the lock in occurs. We have several ideas but there they remain - as ideas. The sense of smell remains a bit of a mystery. In theory we should e able to receive or identify around 16 million odours. Even the most trained perfumer or therapist uses only a few thousand at maximum say 100,000. Common sense alone tells us something else must be going on here - no body system is that under utilised!

The sense of smell itself is exciting. We refer roughly to the four legged animal kingdom sometimes forgetting that birds, frogs, fish all have a different way of evaluating. Isn't it exciting to know that fish like the smell of essential oils and the fisherman's tricks rely to a great extent upon essential oils. Neither can we forget that in its origins, aromatherapy refers to Avicenna. Avicenna used smell diagnosis- today it acknowledged that eccrine sweat reflects the blood plasma and contributes to body odour. Perhaps we were taught that diabetes has an acetone smell but there is also a smell to lung cancer, to cirrhosis of the liver, even to schizophrenia. This is very rarely mentioned.

It's true we do not have an acute sense of smell like some animals. We really need a good strong dose of something to smell it. Humans can however discriminate very well. This is the principle we have used successfully in our company for years - some oils simply smell better, the nose discriminates and picks up subtle differences and nuances. Of course it takes a little training as with a perfumer or a blind person but an aromatherapist perhaps only used to cheap industrial oils might find it a mind blowing experience to sample the real thing!

Maybe it is time to review amongst the older aromatherapists the value of aroma and the sense of smell, re-evaluating it in modules and perhaps giving more attention to the details of not only the anatomy and physiology of the standard textbooks but the experience and value of the therapy in its experience and usage.

© Jan Kusmirek 2002

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