Susannah Conway column
Scent can enhance or alter our moods, evoke past memories, and remind us of loved ones and places, says Susannah Conway.
I’ve been intuitively using scent as a way to change how I feel for years. First thing in the morning I make coffee and light an incense stick to fill the house with fragrance while I shower and get dressed. Throughout the day I’ll diffuse essential oils according to how I feel – cedarwood, lime and grapefruit buoy me in the morning while lavender and clary sage ease me into the evening. Ylang ylang and sandalwood make me feel like a goddess. Peppermint is perfect at any time of day.
There’s always a bowl of oils near my computer so when inspiration is lacking I roll some evocatively- scented oil onto my pulse points to wake up my brain – heady tuberose felt like the right accompaniment right now. Aromatherapists have been saying for years that certain aromas can improve performance and our capacity to remember – doctors may not agree but there’s no denying how uplifting a deep inhale of sweet orange oil is. It’s like sunshine in a bottle.
As I get older I’m becoming sensitive to the chemicals in artificial scents, the ubiquitous taxi air freshener giving me a headache, so oils have been replacing bottles of parfume lately. Since I started wearing Le Labo’s Patchouli 24 oil I’ve been getting a ridiculous amount of compliments from men and women, and yet, when I wore it with my sister she made me wash it off. “You don’t smell like you,” she said.
Smell is our most ancient and animal sense, one that often gets overlooked and yet we sniff out scented pleasures like pigs searching for truff les. “Smell is one of the first senses that awakens in a baby and guides its movements through its first days in the world,” says perfumer Mandy Aftel. “An infant can locate its mother’s milk by the use of its nose alone. Babies smile when they recognise their mother’s odour, preferring it to the smell of any other woman.” Smells hit the brain directly, the olfactory bulb (the smell processor) sitting right next to the hippocampus, the bit of of brain that’s crucial for creating new memories. Perhaps it’s not surprising that Alzheimer’s patients often lose their sense of smell along with their memories. Our vocabulary for smells is curiously limited as if it surpasses language altogether. Think of how you know your loved ones by scent, even if you’re not consciously aware of it. We sniff their T- shirt when they’re away, bury our noses in their neck when they come back. The comforting smell of our home envelops us after a long trip, that unique combination of raincoats and shoes, dusty curtains and a life well lived.
I’m lucky enough to live on my own and take full advantage of this after 10 years with a boyfriend who didn’t like incense. Previous to that I spent two years with someone who had no sense of smell, a condition known as anosmia, and I always fantasised that one day he’d suddenly be able to smell and I’d bake bread and buy flowers. When was the last time you truly smelled something? Not a quick cursory sniff but a long protracted inhalation, letting the scent molecules tantalise your taste buds as well as your olfactory organs. Slice an orange in half and take a sniff. Peel some ginger or open a bottle of vinegar. Imagine describing it to someone who’d never smelt it before. What does an orange really smell like?
Aromas make the world a richer place, bringing experiences to life and anchoring us in the present moment. They also catapult us back into the past. I only have to break open a freshly-picked pea pod or slice some runner beans to be sitting back in my grandmother’s kitchen helping her make dinner. Scent memories can hit us at the most unexpected moments. I’ll be walking down the street and catch a waft of a certain aftershave and wooosh – I’m a teenager again, sharing furtive kisses with a certain boy. And I’ll never forget the smell of my mother’s handbag circa 1981, all musty leather and Yardley lipstick, a leaking bottle of Charlie and a lace-trimmed hankie. There are smells we keep archived in our brains forever.
FURTHER READING From left: A Natural History of the Senses by Diane Ackerman. Essence & Alchemy by Mandy Aftel. Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Suskind. The Fragrant Mind by Valerie Ann Worwood.