By Rachel Rudy, Quantum Botanicals Student
Cardamom insisted I write this. And those of you who have had a scent irrevocably weave itself into your life will understand what I mean by this. Such is the way with some plants, finding their way to you. I hadn’t even seen cardamom before I knew I needed to be introduced.
On a dreary, rain soaked morning in British Columbia, I was driving to work when the podcast I was listening to mentioned a few ingredients – cinnamon, ginger, and cardamom. Perhaps it was the mention of a spice beyond my kitchen’s old friends that caught my ear, or the fact that this blend was added to the interviewees morning coffee, either way I was intrigued. Even without tasting it, the warming spices made sense in a morning brew that already serves as a standalone comfort to many.
Thankfully, the pods were easy to obtain, and spoiled for choice I selected the green and black variety. Our holy trio, ground up along with the beans, steeped 4 minutes in the french press, wafted straight into the recesses of my brain. Without any deliberation, a knowing overcame me and said “This is magic”, honing entirely on that note of cardamom. It followed me throughout my work day. And days where I didn’t drink it, I would have phantom recalls of the scent, beckoning me back to cardamom.
As I’ve never been a scent driven person, we all know the ones – those who identify notes or are intolerant of any whiff, those who are spritzed head to toe, or candle haul every season – I never gave it much thought. There were certain smells that I was drawn to, earthy and rich, eccentric and warming but beyond that it wasn’t something I sought out before cardamom showed me the therapeutic property fragrance could hold. It lingers on my palate, diffusing from the warmth of my mouth with the air of inhalation, drawing me upwards and centered into myself. Now I find I welcome and seek moments of aromatherapy throughout my day, leaning over the steam of the carafe, adding rosewater to skincare, clicking on the diffuser before bed. They create moments of intention, connection, and simple luxury. My intention for this piece is to explore what research and anecdotes have to say on the impact scent can have on us.
Before we go further, it might be helpful to explain what a fragrance is. The scent itself comes from volatile chemicals picked up through the olfactory system due to its molecular weight. A study I found explaining the influence of fragrances on our bodies and minds states that when we inhale “…electrical signals are transmitted to the brain by olfactory sensory neurons via olfactory bulb and higher olfactory cortex… these electrical signals modulate the brain functions including memory, thoughts, and emotions.” (Sowndhararajan & Kim, 2016) and because it crosses the brain blood barrier, the receptors in the central nervous system can respond. Due to that impact our central nervous system, which is responsible for the functions of our body such as sending motor signals, interpreting sensory information (such as scent), and processing information from our environment (storing/creating/responding to memory), we can begin to see how an often overlooked sense can be powerfully effective over our body, and even at times, it can be essential for our survival.
Consider this: All of our other senses demand psychophysiological responses – if we see, hear, or touch something that appears threatening or tastes unpleasant, we react right away! We also respond quickly to positive interpretations of these senses – gazing upon a flowery meadow can make us feel calm and at peace with ourselves, the taste of a favorite childhood dessert can bring back warm memories, the skin to skin contact of a loved one’s hug can make you feel connected and decrease stress, or the swell of a crescendo that can inspire a sense of purpose or motivation. These are more easily accepted and understood over the neglected sense of scent; however, our sense of scent served an biologically important purpose, identifying the smell of healthy soil, fresh water, spoiled or ripe food, and distinguishing our mates or community. We rely on all of these senses to make informed decisions, often on a subconscious level, and we can see how they can be influenced to our advantage by being intentional with what we intake.
What is fascinating is the unique attraction we hold to each smell. While there are proven components to some smells having effects on relaxing our nervous systems and uplifting our mood, if you have a powerful memory attached to one smell, your memory very well might override that scent. We can also condition ourselves over time, as a child the smell of butter and eggs was enough to have me leaping out of bed in the morning, and after being plant based for 11 years, both those scents now turn my stomach.
But there is another factor to consider specifically when wearing a scent on your body, and that is the composition of that fragrance with your own natural body odour. A study conducted by Lenochová et al. (2012) showed that when participants’ natural body odour was combined with the fragrance of their choosing, it was significantly more attractive to the participant over the option of a random perfume with similar notes mixed with their body odour. From this study, it appears to suggest that we have an innate knowledge of what fragrances compliment us best. Sure, biologically it may have some ties with attracting a mate based off of our scent. But there is a part of me that indulges the idea that choosing scents that compliment us, that we are drawn to, is this simple hedonistic pleasure that connects us beyond time, whether its a product our grandmother used, or anointing ourselves in essential oils and absolutes treasured by ancient civilisations.
Admittedly, I was a skeptic to the claims of aromatherapy, partially due to ignorance, partially due to a level of modern awareness around MLMs and those that capitalised on essential oil marketing. It took opening up a bag of cardamom pods recently to remind me what power scent can carry.. How the aroma worked its way into my being, following me throughout my day. Obsessively going back to it morning after morning for months. It was something stumbled upon. That made it’s way to me during a time in my life where I was reconnecting with independence and healing self worth. And in reflection, that is true therapy.
Sowndhararajan, K., & Kim, S. (2016). Influence of Fragrances on Human Psychophysiological Activity: With Special Reference to Human Electroencephalographic Response. Scientia pharmaceutica, 84(4), 724–751. https://doi.org/10.3390/scipharm84040724
Lenochová, P., Vohnoutová, P., Roberts, S. C., Oberzaucher, E., Grammer, K., & Havlíček, J. (2012). Psychology of fragrance use: perception of individual odor and perfume blends reveals a mechanism for idiosyncratic effects on fragrance choice. PloS one, 7(3), e33810. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0033810