HEALTH AND BEAUTY : Nose Knows : Scientists are finding fragrances can trigger memories and affect moods. A local aromatherapy center offers scented massage.
This is the memory:
The cobblestone road winds up from the small German village, its church spire in the distance, toward a heather-bordered forest. The wheels of my bicycle make a thumping sound on the road and the wind blows chilly on my face. A truck passes me, and a passenger leans out the window and waves.
This is what evokes it: The smell of diesel fuel.
I am 3 years old in my grandmother’s kitchen, and my grandfather lifts me on top of his shoulders. The back of his crew cut looks like a white hairbrush, and I wrap my small fingers around his neck. He rubs the back of his head against my face, laughing.
This is what evokes it: The smell of fresh-baked bread.
To a lot of scientists, such revelations would not be surprising.
Researchers have found that a person’s sense of smell is directly linked to the part of the brain that controls memory.
One fragrance may access an early childhood experience, while another may call forth a romantic weekend spent in a mountain cabin.
In Japan, where studies are being conducted about the physiological effects of some fragrances, a handful of companies are even using certain scents--such as lemon--to keep workers more alert.
The idea of smell and memory certainly makes sense to me. But I must admit that, when I found out about the latest use of some fragrances, I wasn’t sure what to make of it.
“Our bodies respond strongly to different scents, and there can be tremendously positive effects brought about by using them,” said Julia Meadows, who called a while back to tell me about the Aromatherapy Center in Ojai. Different fragrances, she said, “have different therapeutic properties.”
If you’re feeling nervous or jittery, she said, a little essential oil of basil may do the trick. Depressed? Try geranium or bergamot. Tired? Use a dab of peppermint or lemon. Can’t sleep? A whiff of sandalwood may be all it takes.
Meadows, I found out later, is one of a small but growing number of “aromatherapists” around the country who believe that essential oils--concentrated substances extracted from plants, flowers, herbs, resins, fruits and spices--can enhance a person’s health, be used in beauty treatments and help regulate moods.
According to one of the center’s brochures, aromatherapy is the art and science of blending essential oils, which in turn “act on the system to promote relaxation, stress reduction and rejuvenation.”
And aromatherapists aren’t the only ones who believe in the positive power of scents. Maralyn Teare, a clinical instructor of psychiatry at the USC School of Medicine, has used fragrances to treat hundreds of people suffering from various phobias. At the UCLA School of Medicine, another professor of psychiatry has said learning about fragrances would be beneficial for medical doctors and psychotherapists.
The fragrances can be inhaled, poured into the bathtub or, in the case of the Aromatherapy Center, applied via massage.
I opted for the massage.
Elizabeth Reynolds, a massage therapist who works at the center, was waiting for me when I arrived.
“Different essential oils are divided into top, middle and base notes,” she explained as she pulled out what looked like a miniature spice rack that held about 100 tiny vials.
Top notes tend to have an uplifting effect on the body, she said, while middle notes affect the body’s metabolism. Base notes, she added, are sedative and counteract stress.
“I’m going to let you smell about three or four vials from each category, and then you choose the ones you like best,” she said. “Then I’ll use those in the massage.”
So much for the scientific part of it, I thought. But even if my mind had closed somewhat to the idea, my nose hadn’t.
Reynolds let me sniff some pungent scents, some of which brought vivid images instantly to mind. One reminded me of the cheap perfume an aunt used to wear. Another reminded me of Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley during the ‘70s.
I finally chose three milder ones: vanilla, chamomile and something called ylang-ylang.
Now, Reynolds is the kind of masseuse a lot of stressed-out people would mortgage their houses for. Her hands are strong, and she seems to have a sixth sense about where there is tension. When I emerged an hour later, I smelled like a freshly baked cake and felt like a wet noodle.
But to be objective about this, I can’t say I’m convinced the essential oils are what relaxed me. If Reynolds had used essential oil of Crisco, I probably would have felt just as good.
Someone else may disagree with me.
When it comes to the art and science of aromatherapy, it may just be a case of every nose for itself.
* WHERE AND WHEN
The Aromatherapy Center is at 205 N. Signal St., Ojai. For a list of skin and body care services and aromatherapy treatments, or to schedule an appointment, call JustFaceIt at 646-3165 or Essential Aromatics at 640-1300. Both open daily, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.