Dr. Patricia Farrell on Medika Life

Smell Your Way to Better Health and Happiness?

New research expands on forest and aroma therapy that we have been advised to include in our lives and it may all rely on our sense of smell.

The great outdoors are receiving more attention and research studies that are revealing the contributions they can make to our health and happiness. It is an offshoot of the work done with forest bathing in Japan and forest therapy now being recommended by physicians and therapists.

No, it’s not simply getting out of doors in the fresh air and sunshine, there’s more to it than that, and the “more” is hidden from the human eye. But there’s even more we are learning about our physical senses and how they affect us in ways previously unknown.

For example, think of research that is now indicating we may pick our friends via a sense of smell that we both share. Is this too fantastic for words? The researchers indicate, Because humans seek friends who are similar to themselves, we hypothesized that humans may smell themselves and others to subconsciously estimate body odor similarity, which, in turn, may promote friendship. Are perfumes and other scents a subconscious acknowledgment of this feature of olfaction? Do we try to deceive in this way?

I don’t care for the term “body odor,” and I prefer “personal scent” in its place. Each of us does have a certain scent all our own and it runs in families which would mean it’s a function of our genetic inheritance.

Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of human experience that we deny is that we, much like other animals on the planet, use our sense of smell in ways we never anticipated. Who would have thought that we might be prompted to initiate a friendship based on an unrealized scent that that person projects in the air around them. Of course, we laugh at this and call it absurd.

We’re not like dogs, cats and other animals that sniff out which one is going to be a friend and which one a foe. No, we are far superior to them; after all, we are the apex predator or whatever you wish to call us. We assume we are superior in every way and yet we’re not.

Research is now proving that our out-of-awareness ability to detect various scents in other persons promotes friendships or more intimate relationships. The hypothesis is that we gravitate toward those who have a scent that is similar to our own and there are areas in our brain that respond to this.

If scents are inducers to promote relationships, do they also provide an additional layer of understanding about that person’s emotional state at any time? Do scents vary over time according to emotions being experienced? Perhaps they do and this might also initiate in us feelings of empathy or concern regarding safety. We don’t have to ask someone to know how they are feeling if we can use our sense of smell, our olfactory receptors, to pick up the unseen that is present.

We are now considering something called chemosensory communication which may influence our human emotions such as friendship or a wish for closeness to someone else. The area has not been well studied up to the present time, but it is now receiving much more attention because of more sophisticated monitoring systems which we can engage. These chemical signals are seen as social cues, providing information that meshes well with our interests and can significantly affect how we act toward others.

One interesting fact in medicine, which had become apparent in the least 30 years, is that persons who are developing Alzheimer’s disease often experience a loss of smell initially. The test for it is now called the “peanut butter test.” Such a test for the sense of smell may indicate an area of the brain that is deteriorating. In fact, one of the tests that had been used in Alzheimer’s research previously had a rack of small vials containing a number of different scents.

I recall a woman coming in for our Alzheimer’s protocol who had no sense of smell. Why? Being a fastidious homemaker, she used a combination of cleaning ingredients that destroyed her nasal receptors almost completely.

There is also the thesis that the sense of smell can be used in a navigational sense. Utilizing this facility would be most important in detecting dangerous odors that might not be apparent to others and this brings up the question of personal sensitivity. Are some persons more sensitive to the scent of others? It may seem like an academic question, but it has interesting aspects to it.

Are you aware of the profession where people are referred to as a “nose?” A nose is a person who has such acute olfactory senses that they are utilized in the creation of scents for personal grooming. I suppose we could say that they could also be used for creating scents used in a very in a variety of other activities such as hunting or seeking out certain types of vermin. Hunters do use manufactured scents to attract certain animals.

Photo by Jeff Nissen on Unsplash

Research begun in the 19th century by Paul Broca, discovered that there is an area in our brain that does provide signals regarding what our nostrils perceive. However, Broca also believed that humans are what is known as anosmatic, meaning that scent has little meaning in the lives of humans outside of perfumes, food, outdoor scents, flowers, etc. He foresaw a limited range for our sense of smell and this bias was passed down to us until the 20th century.

Another interesting fact of science is that although we have approximately 800 olfactory receptor genes that may detect one trillion olfactory stimuli, most of the receptors are non-functioning because of evolutionary change and our need to survive. While we may require fewer of these particular receptors, lower animals, such as dogs, have an extraordinary number. Dogs possess about 800 million receptors, making them especially keen to be able to pick up scents that are not in the human range.

We now know that chemosensory cues, usually associated with taste, are introduced to us through our mother’s milk and it is believed this is where the sense of bitter and sour originates. But what if the mother’s smell, is something that precipitates the initial priming of brain cells in the olfactory brain center regarding our interactions with others? Is that how family bonding begins? That’s a question that may be left for future researchers. But it does pique my interest.

The sense of smell is essential to us since it can provide pleasure and security and help us choose friends and mates. One researcher has hypothesized that we could have a more acute sense of smell if it had not been for evolution which negated the need for all these receptors. Of course, if something is still present, albeit not utilized, the potential exists for us to sharpen that sense and use it more in line with current culture.

Where will our sense of smell go in the future? Only the scientists involved in the research may provide the clue we seek.

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Pat Farrell PhD
Pat Farrell PhDhttps://medium.com/@drpatfarrell
I'm a licensed psychologist in NJ/FL and have been in the field for over 30 years serving in most areas of mental health, psychiatry research, consulting, teaching (post-grad), private practice, consultant to WebMD and writing self-help books. Currently, I am concentrating on writing articles and books.


Medika Editor: Mental Health

I'm a licensed psychologist in NJ/FL and have been in the field for over 30 years serving in most areas of mental health, psychiatry research, consulting, teaching (post-grad), private practice, consultant to WebMD and writing self-help books. Currently, I am concentrating on writing articles and books.

Patricia also acts in an editorial capacity for Medika's mental health articles, providing invaluable input on a wide range of mental health issues.

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