Day naps are a luxury that I try to indulge in as much as possible with my three year old. Those moments of quiet, stillness and mutual relaxation – watching his eyelashes slowly flutter before sleep – are some of the most precious in my days. But there’s another part of it that is equally rapturous; it’s his smell. With our faces nestled close, his warm outbreath floods me with the scent of earthy-sweet, warm rooibos tea. It’s weirdly addictive, and a smell that I now associate with his good health (it definitely changes when he’s unwell.)
New parents all instinctively sniff at the newborn-scent of their babies. And while we don’t know which molecules trigger the reward-system in our brains when we get a hit of that intoxicating smell, we all know that it feels right and good.
Our sensory systems are the product of millions of years of adaptation to the living world that sustains us. Evolution created these sensory feedback loops – sight, smell, taste, touch, feel --- so that we can better understand our surroundings – to survive and thrive. Our senses allow us to embody our world; taking it in, making sense of it, and altering our behaviour based on that experience.
Our nose can decipher more than 1 trillion different odours – the kind of sensitivity that would only have developed by very sound evolutionary reasoning. “The ability of humans to smell has adapted over time to aid survival and reproduction, helping humans identify nutritious foods, select partners and avoid spoiled food and other dangers,” Andrea Korte writes in her article Surroundings and Evolution Shape Human Sight, Smell and Taste.
The air around us is a brimming ocean of scent, whether we consciously notice it or not. Smell, in particular, is deeply intertwined with memory and emotion. The front of our brain is responsible for processing all three, and so a note of peppermint can send me through time and space, straight back to the pepperminty-sweet jars of candy on my nana’s kitchen bench.
It’s actually smell that comprises most of what we consider ‘taste,’ as chewing ricochets complex molecules into our nasal epithelium, or receptive tissue. Salty, sweet, bitter and sour are the domain of taste, but the delightful nuance of gingerbread coffee cake is the gift of our noses. Even more than a photo, the scent of a similar cake takes me right back to my Aunt Dee’s house in rural Florida - to her horses and quirky monologues. It’s a scent-memory that evokes both nostalgia and gratitude.
While there’s ample conjecture about the particular healing benefits of essential oils, we all know that smell shapes us and has the power to alter our state of mind and body. Endurance athlete Christopher Bergland writes about using smell to prime himself for training or competition:
“As a professional athlete, I consciously used olfaction to create a specific mood, mindset, and target behaviour. For example, the smell of sunscreen always reminds me of summer and fills me with the energy and cheerfulness of clear blue skies and bright sunshine. On gray, wintry days when I was training on a treadmill inside a depressing gym, the smell of sunscreen evoked all the positive emotions associated with summertime.”
While most of us aren’t training for triathlons, we can use the science of scent to our own advantage. For me, a scent-based daily ritual of spritzing with homemade hydrosol or exfoliating with DIY coffee cake inspired body scrub, are simply opportunities for presence. These breaks in the busy flow of the day, and especially the delicious scents they carry, bring me straight back into my body and create a moment of appreciation for the gift of sensing our mysterious, magical, and sensuous world.