From detecting mouth-watering aromas wafting throughout our favourite French restaurant…all the way to the most unpleasant odours warning us of potential danger, our sense of smell – our olfactory system – has played an essential role in our everyday lives since, well, forever. In fact, as the oldest of our senses, we might not even exist without it.
Going back roughly 6 million years, our sense of smell has been said to have been just as important as language itself in giving us humans the evolutionary advantage over others (i.e., smell thy enemy and run – or smell thy prey and leap).
In a modern context, our sense of smell can help us recognize something as trivial as a carton of spoiled milk – or alert us to something as dangerous as a natural gas leak.
And yet, smells can also bring us back in time to other places and other times – even memories of our childhood.
So, it is no surprise that neuroscientists have long found a connection between smell (the olfactory centre) and regions of the brain linked to memory and emotion. Who can forget the burning marshmallow smell at their first bonfire? Or the smell of freshly baked lasagna? And there is something amazing about the smell of a fresh-water river winding through a forest that simply never gets old.
In contrast, there are the nasty smells. Rotting garbage. The dog encountering a skunk, or the smell of our car overheating on the highway in a traffic jam. Gah, it’s unsettling just thinking about it!
But what is so damned cool is that the oldest of our senses is truly on our side. Our sense of smell not only protects us, but it also gives us those ephemeral pleasures that ease the aching body and soothe the pent up mind.
Just as we are drawn to the smell of a simmering pot of soup, we are drawn to the scent of fresh flowers, pinecones and fresh running waters…and drawn to the smells that heal us. Over millennia, we’ve learned how the power of scents can be harnessed to improve our health.
Essential oils are often used in aromatherapy, a form of alternative medicine that employs plant extracts to support health and well-being. These benefits can range from reducing anxiety to fighting infections, inflammation, and other health issues. Our smell knows what’s good for us. Our nose knows!
Barring a medical condition or brief cold, our sense of smell keeps us connected to some of our world’s greatest pleasures and can help us feel our best. Without it, life would quite simply…stink.