The Hidden Power of Fragrance

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“Scents can have positive effects on mood, stress reduction, sleep enhancement, self-confidence and physical and cognitive performance,” says Theresa Molnar, executive director of the Sense of Smell Institute, the research and educational arm of the perfume industry’s Fragrance Foundation. By becoming more aware of the way specific odors affect you personally, you may be able to enhance your health and well being.

There are many effects of fragrance on an individual and on their lifestyle. Some of them are:

Memory's Muse

An odor has no personal significance until it becomes connected to something that has meaning. With your initial encounter, you begin forming nerve connections that intertwine the smell with emotions. The capacities for both smell and emotion are rooted in the same network of brain structures, the limb system. The olfactory center also interacts directly with the hippo campus, a brain area involved in the formation of new memories. On a practical level, that means that you may be able to use your sense of smell to prompt your memory when taking a test.

In the Line of Scent: The Mind-Body Connection

Given the intimate interconnections between smell and emotion, it's not surprising that a glitch in one can contribute to problems with the other. Anosmia—complete loss of the sense of smell—often leads to depression. Conversely, people with severe depression often show a diminished sensitivity to odors.

A decline in the ability to smell may be an early signal of neurological disorders such as Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, and Huntington's diseases. The reverse may also be true. "Theoretically, practicing one's sense of smell could be associated with better neurological well-being, but this has not been proven," says Christian Kohler, clinical director of neuropsychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania. Still, you have nothing to lose by giving your nose a regular workout.

As a significant link in the mind-body connection, the sense of smell can be deployed to improve pain tolerance. Any pleasant smell can act as a distraction and lift mood, but recent studies suggest that sweet smells may work best. "Sweet tastes reduce pain by activating opioid systems in the brain, and the odor comes to activate the same systems," says Australian psychologist John Prescott, currently a visiting scholar at Oxford University.

You can also use your sense of smell to deliver instant relaxation, says Pamela Dalton, a sensory psychologist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center, in Philadelphia. Pick a distinctive odor, and then pair that aroma with a calming meditation session. After a few sessions, the odor itself will elicit a relaxed state, even when you don't have time to meditate.

Cultivating a Signature Fragrance

The smell savvy that helps you perform better on a test or cope more effectively with pain also helps you shape the impression you make on others. Choose a personal fragrance carefully, being mindful of common cultural associations. A mossy or woody fragrance exudes earthiness, for example, while a musky scent connotes sexiness.

A Dab of Common Scents

Aromas have different effects on everyone, but these natural fragrances are odors for the masses.

Peppermint is generally invigorating. "Peppermint scent increases activity in the brain area that wakes us up in the morning ," says Bryan Raudenbush, a psychologist at Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia. His research has shown that exercisers run faster and do more push-ups when exposed to the scent. Try a few drops of peppermint oil on a wristband.

Lavender is generally relaxing. Exposure to lavender scent can decrease heart rate. Use the scent for unwinding at bedtime, suggests Avery Gilbert, a sensory psychologist in Montclair, New Jersey. Or take several whiffs to recharge yourself during work breaks. Japanese researchers find that the practice helps prevent an afternoon slump in concentration.

Jasmine is a sleep aid. Different labs have found that the scent increases the brain waves associated with deep sleep. Put some jasmine oil in a bedside aroma diffuser or sprinkle a few drops on your pillow.

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