Simply stated, when a smell arrives at the limbic system, the brain releases unique neurochemicals, triggering a variety of reactions. This is because the limbic system’s structures can affect mood, memory, cognition, behavior, and emotion. Let’s explore some of those structures:
You’ve probably heard the word amygdala before, but do you remember what it is? Found in the brain’s complex limbic system, the amygdala is an almond-shaped mass that deals with emotional responses, especially negative ones like fear and disgust. Think of it as a lighthouse keeper that’s sending out warnings when dangerous situations arise. It also helps secrete hormones and regulate memories.
Another key part of the limbic system is called the hippocampus. This tiny nub is like the librarian of our brain. It indexes, files, and retrieves our memories (probably while wearing a tiny sweater vest!). It also helps to form long- and short-term memories.
The hypothalamus is another helpful figure in our limbic system. This part of our brain is the engineer that keeps many of our systems running. Body temperature? The hypothalamus is on it! Sleep regulation? It’s got your back. Metabolism, adrenaline, and hormones are also part of its job description. It’s an important emotional center, controlling the molecules that make you feel exhilarated, angry, or unhappy. Some even consider this little guy the epicenter of the mind/body connection!
Imagine all those powerful parts of the brain working together to process a scent—maybe it’s freshly baked bread or newly cut grass. This is why smell can trigger long-forgotten experiences in an instant. In fact, several studies have shown that smells trigger more intense and vivid emotional memories than pictures. This is why the science behind aromatherapy is so powerful: Our brains are doing a million complex, powerful, amazing things with scent every day!
How to use essential oils for aromatherapy
That’s it for science class for today. Don’t worry if you lost the flash cards because the key takeaway is simple: Scent is powerful! It affects the limbic system of the brain in all types of ways. Mood, memory, cognition, emotion, and behavior are all affected. That’s all the aromatherapy science we really need to get started.
So which scent do you want to start with? Earthy oils, woodsy oils, fruity oils, minty oils, floral oils—we’ve got it all! There are also spicy oils, citrusy oils, resinous oils, camphoraceous oils, and herbaceous oils. Because we all have different emotions and memories, each of these oils will have a slightly different effect for each person. However, each of these scent types generally offers the following benefits and influences:
Earthy oils are often considered grounding, stabilizing, calming, and sustaining. Vetiver is an earthy oil, and it’s commonly diffused at bedtime to fill a room with a restful scent.
Woodsy oils have scents that are often thought to have qualities that are centering, steadying, strengthening, and empowering. Northern Lights Black Spruce is a great example of a woodsy oil that’s popular to use during a meditation session.