Have you ever had a certain aroma send you immediately back to a memory from years before? Have you ever smelled a certain food from your childhood and conjured up memories from a long time ago? The sense of smell is a very unique system in comparison to the other senses.
All of the senses play a role in our experience of qualia. Understanding the concept of qualia can help you access new ways of engaging with the world around you, as well as your inner life. Because of the individual nature of your olfactory system, the part of the body that perceives smell, the sense of smell plays a unique role in the experience of qualia.
Understanding the Olfactory System
To grasp the connection between qualia and aromatherapy, it’s important to understand the olfactory system. The olfactory system is the name for the organs and nerves that allow for sensation and perception of smell.1
The system includes the nose, the nasal cavity, as well as an area called the olfactory bulb. This bulb is behind the nose and also situated next to the amygdala and the hippocampus in the brain. When you inhale through your nose, the cells and nerves that are sensitive to aromas carry that information to the olfactory bulb, and it is processed immediately.
That is why the sense of smell is so unique. In every other sensory system in the body, the information taken in by the cells in the system travels first to the thalamus in the brain and then back out to a different area in the brain for processing. The olfactory system bypasses the thalamus and is instead picked up almost immediately by the amygdala and the hippocampus.
The Connection Between Smell, Mood, and Memory
The amygdala and hippocampus are not just any parts of the brain, either. They are two active and fundamental areas of the brain responsible for a huge aspect of human experiences.
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The amygdala is the part of the brain that regulates the most basic and intense emotional reactions. This is the area of the brain where people will experience the fight or flight response. It is also where individuals feel the most acute experiences of joy and love.
The hippocampus is an area of the brain that is associated with long-term memory processing. The close proximity of the hippocampus and the amygdala is a part of why some of the most intense emotional experiences of your life become so deeply etched in the brain.
This is why many individuals have such a powerful experience when they smell a strong smell—both long-term memory banks and deep emotional reactions are stimulated.
The neurological discoveries discussed above help explain why aromatherapy and essential oil use has been so prevalent throughout human history.2 A quick overview of a wide range of human cultures over time will show that almost all of them employed the use of aromas and smells in one way or another.
One of the primary uses of aromatherapy is to regulate or establish an internal mood. When you use the right combination of essential oils, you make it possible to get in touch with the parts of yourself that have been suppressed or are having trouble functioning.
Through this, you can deeply alter your mood quickly because of the neural pathways in the brain that are stimulated when you experience a strong scent.
Qualia and the Sense of Smell
To make the connection between the sense of smell and qualia, you have to understand what qualia is. Qualia is a concept or term for what it feels like to be you.3 Basically, it is the idea of what you experience internally in any given moment, given the particular perceptions that surround you at that moment.
The sense of smell is not always taken into great account when you are processing sensory perceptions. That is because the sense of smell can be overwhelmed by auditory and visual systems. However, if you encounter a very strong smell, it can quickly change your mood.
This has implications for qualia. Unlike visual and auditory stimuli, you can stimulate your olfactory bulb without stopping other important functions. For example, you can experience the pleasant aroma of our essential oil diffuser while you are handling stressful client calls at work. Alternatively, you can enjoy the smell of baking your favorite cookies from your childhood while preparing other foods for dinner.
By engaging in these activities, you make it possible for your experience of qualia to shift. When you take responsibility for how you are experiencing a moment through aromatherapy or other techniques, you can feel more empowered and equipped to feel well in your life.
So, if you are looking for a unique way to engage with aromatherapy, consider the effects aromatherapy may have on your qualia in general. The more you focus on your internal experience at the moment and think about how you can empower yourself through it, the better you will feel. You can achieve this by using essential oils topically after diluting them with a carrier oil, adding a few drops to a bath, or using them in a room diffuser or personal diffuser like Zen.
Aromatherapy is one of the most valuable tools at your disposal for this work because of the unique way the olfactory system connects with the rest of the brain. When you allow yourself to sink deeply into a particular scent or aroma, you can transport your mood into a different world. You can also trigger deep-seated positive memories from as far back as our childhood.
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