Rediscovering Scent

A vitalistic look at your ability of smell.

By Molly Dickinson
From the time we’re old enough to point to our eyes, nose, mouth and ears, we’re taught the human body possesses five senses—or ways of perceiving our internal and external worlds: touch, sight, smell, taste and hearing. This, as it turns out, is nonsense. 

In reality, we’re far more sensory creatures than we’ve long given ourselves credit for. Most neurologists agree we possess at least nine senses, and many put that number closer to 20 or more. For instance, the sense we generally call touch is more accurately described as a group of individual senses—heat, cold, pain, pressure, itch—each claiming its own specific kind of sensory nerve. There’s also our sense of where our bodies are in space (our ability to point to our nose, mouth or ears with our eyes closed—called proprioception); and our senses of balance (vestibular sense) and motion (kinesthetic sense). 

Not only are there many more ways of sensing than the elementary five, but our understanding of even this handful of senses is sorely lacking. Emerging research suggests we’ve vastly underestimated the acuity of our individual senses, as well as the roles they play in allowing us to do everything from ordering a meal in a restaurant to deciding how attracted we are to our dinner date. In a word, when it comes to appreciating our senses, we remain, well, insensitive. 

So why not take a closer look (listen, sniff, touch, taste)? 

Throughout the next several issues, TCL will be dedicating these pages to rediscovering our senses, respecting the deep intelligence that guides them and reveling in them—and their powers to adapt, balance, heal and delight—for all they’re worth. 

We begin with what is perhaps the most undervalued of the “five senses”—our sense of smell.

The Power of Smell
The pungent zip of raw garlic lingering on your fingers long after the roast is served and the dishes washed and put away. The unmistakably familiar scent of a loved one’s favorite T-shirt. The smell of a spring rain—even before it falls. 

What would our world be without our ability to breathe it in? Taste is 90 percent smell. We can recall a scent with 65-percent accuracy after an entire year has passed. (Our memory of photographs fades to about 50 percent after only three months.) Smell is the only sense with a direct link to our primal brains, making it the one sense that instantly, viscerally evokes memory.

Eva Levin, certified aromatherapist at LifeTree Chiropractic and Aromatherapy in New York City, knows just how potent our sense of smell can be. “Imagine you’re walking down the street and you suddenly smell vanilla and cinnamon,” she says. “Immediately, you’re transported into a warm, childhood memory of your grandmother baking cookies. The memory of the emotion is there, of a day when you were a carefree child. Your whole body reacts accordingly and it relaxes.” 

The power of smell lured Eva into the world of aromatherapy while she was working at her family’s beachside bar in her home country of Croatia—incidentally, or, perhaps, fatefully—where she met her future husband and practice partner David Levin, D.C. She graduated from the Academy of Aromatherapy (Aroma Akademija, “Aromara”) in Croatia in 2006, before co-establishing LifeTree with David three years later.

“People take our sense of smell for granted,” Eva says. “But our sense of smell is just as important as any other of the senses. This is another way of perceiving the world. Without a sense of smell, there wouldn’t be taste. A mother can recognize her child purely by smell. Smell is how, ultimately, on a subconscious level, we are able to recognize or even find a compatible reproductive partner.”(It has been proven that women prefer the smell of men whose genetics complement their own, and will be more attracted to the scent of T-shirts worn by those who can confer corresponding immunities to their children).

It’s the olfactory system’s non-stop connection to our primitive brain—the limbic system, seat of our emotional center and originator of the fight-or-flight response, is one of the oldest human brain structures, and one of the first to form in the womb—that makes the sense of smell so powerful. Sensations of touch, sight, taste and hearing must all be rerouted through the spinal cord before reaching the brain, but smell goes straight to the source. This, Eva says, is part of what makes aromatherapy so holistically effective. 

Healing through Smell
“The moment scent molecules enter your nose, receptors in your brain pick up on them, and the message goes instantly to your whole body,” she says. You can see it in the LifeTree office, every time a patient or client walks through the door. 

“Everyone comes in, stops, and says ‘Wow, it feels really cozy in here,’” says David. “You can see this immediate calm come over them the second they walk in, the first time and every time.” 

With scents of lavender, vanilla, sandalwood and the like constantly circulating throughout the office, Eva begins working her magic on clients even before they reach her door for a session. “That’s the beauty of smell,” she says. “All our other senses operate on a much more conscious level. Smell really touches onto a more subconscious level. We’re often not aware of our sense of smell consciously, but our bodies know it and react accordingly.”

Our sense of smell is also incredibly intuitive and adaptive. For instance, “If you don’t like a certain scent,” Eva says, “very often the scent receptors will close and you will not react positively; you will not be able to get a healing reaction. Intuition-wise your body knows what’s good for you.” This, the Levins say, is where aromatherapy and chiropractic align. 

As inherently vitalistic practices, neither is about “fixing,” or “curing,” or even healing – in the medical sense. Instead, they’re two lifelong practices working with the body to remove interference and promote the body’s natural ability to restore and repair itself. “This is what aromatherapy and Chiropractic are both about,” Eva says. “We don’t heal people, we only encourage and support people, and help them to get back in touch with their own bodies, their own intuition, and heal themselves.”

And when you combine the two? “For me, as a chiropractor, it makes a world of difference,” says David. “After an aromatherapy session—or even just after spending some time in our office and inhaling the air—patients’ stress levels are down and it’s much easier to work with people.” 

The aromatherapy-chiropractic fusion is at its best when patients see Eva before climbing onto David’s adjusting table. She specializes in the Raindrop technique, which blends specifically selected essential oils with a type of massage designed to stimulate nerves along the spinal column and soften surrounding muscle tissue (aromatherapy, Eva notes, isn’t purely effective through smell, but is also therapeutic in that the application of essential oils transfers their benefits directly into the bloodstream through the skin); as well as Vitaflex, a form of essential-oil-enhanced reflexology. 

“When a client comes to see me with digestive problems, I offer a consultation and I create a blend that will be beneficial,” says Eva, “but I also have them consult my husband as a chiropractor.” And vice versa, David adds.

“I notice a big difference before and after the Raindrop or aromatherapy remedies in people I’m adjusting,” David says. “After they see Eva, they’re more relaxed, they’re more responsive, they hold their adjustments much better. It helps me to help them.”

“Chiropractic and aromatherapy work as well together as David and I work together,” Eva says, laughing. “I like to say that blending aromatherapy and Chiropractic is like adding spice to your food.”

Given that without our incredible power of smell, even the most delicious foods would have barely any taste at all—Eva’s analogy seems to make perfect sense.