Su­san­nah Conway col­umn

Scent can en­hance or al­ter our moods, evoke past mem­o­ries, and re­mind us of loved ones and places, says Su­san­nah Conway.

Project Calm - - Contents -

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.

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