Mindfulness of Scent: The What, Why and How
The Power of Scent
Have you ever walked down the street, smelled your ex’s perfume and were immediately
transported to your first date? Or maybe you’ve passed by a lavender shop and felt a tremendous
sense of calm rush over you. Perhaps, as you’ve walked through the streets of a city, you sense
that faint smell of garbage, scrunch up your nose and pick up the pace trying to get as far away
from that smell as possible.
Our sense of smell, or olfaction, is a critical part of both our physical and mental lives. In fact,
our sense of smell is the first fully developed sense a fetus has in the womb. Not only does it
develop in us first, it’s also the sense that is the most developed in a child through the age of
around 10. It will come as no surprise to you then, that olfaction is one of our most crucial senses
and is directly linked to so much more than just the nose.
Scent and the Brain
Let’s first take a look at the path scents take in our bodies. An odor enters the nose through the
nostrils or through the back of the throat if swallowing or chewing is involved. As the odor
molecules move into the nasal cavity they come in contact with the mucus lining therein and
those odor molecules begin to dissolve. Olfactory neurons identify the odor and transmit
information about it to the olfactory bulb, a structure in the front of the brain. This olfactory bulb
then transmits that information to the rest of the limbic system, including the amygdala and the
What functions do the amygdala and hippocampus serve? The hippocampus is where our short-
term memory is stored. It’s also been found to be associated with learning and emotions in its
interactions with the next part of the brain we’ll discuss, the amygdala. This brain structure’s
main function is in our emotional responses such as anxiety, fear, anger and happiness or
calmness. The amygdala attaches emotional content to those initial, short-term memories that the
hippocampus stores. So in a sense (no pun intended), what we smell and emotionally feel in an
initial memory are stored together. So much so, that researchers have noted that the smells we
like or don’t like are formed in our childhood and stay with us for life. That lavender smell that
makes you feel calm as an adult, may have been an important part of your childhood sense of
Scent as a Self Care Skill
Knowing that our sense of smell, memory and emotional responses are linked, it won’t be too
shocking to realize just how powerful scent can be in the therapeutic process. One of the core
tenets of dialectical behavioral therapy, mindfulness, helps us better understand and interact with
our emotions. Focusing on smell and its effect on you could boost your mindfulness ability and
help you find interesting ways of coping with intense negative emotions. Try your hand at
smelling different and unique scents:
Breathe in a bundle of sage, a lavender scented candle or even pine trees on a hike. Try and focus on how those scents make you feel and what memories they bring up. Are those pleasant memories and feelings of calm? If so, you may want to buy a little vile of lavender essential oil to keep around in moments of severe stress.
If you’re feeling exceptionally tired, try smelling a citrus fruit, or something spicy scented. Did that burst of scent awaken your brain? Play around with different “exciting” scents and focus on how they make you feel. If the scent of lemon makes you feel more energetic, consider cutting a slice of lemon in your first glass of water for that energetic activation after a not-so-restful sleep.
Does the smell of your partner’s cologne or perfume just fill you with joy? Try taking it in and really thinking about the feelings and memories that come up for you. If you find that the smell really elicits joy, consider keeping that scent around if you find yourself feeling lonely and need a happiness infusion.
Whatever scent it is and whatever emotions or memories it brings up, our sense of smell can
strengthen our mindfulness capabilities and provide a helpful change in mood so go out there and
smell those roses.