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Aroma-Psychology and Mental States

Research into psychological effects of aroma now attracts major funding. There are four major olfaction research institutions; The Olfactory Research Fund in New York, the Monell Chemical Sense center in Philadelphia, the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation Ltd in Chicago, and Warwixk University's Olfaction Research Foundation Ltd in Chicago, and Warwick University's Olfaction Research Department. 

The Olfactory Research Fund awards grants to doctors who wish to study the psychological aspects of olfaction, and is funded by the fragrance industry, while the Monell employs fifty PhD level scientists and carries out work on the physiology and psychology of aroma, on behalf of various funding agencies - both commercial and governmental.

In addition to these, there are innumerable commercial organizations and education facilities which now look into the psychological effects of aroma, such as International Flavours and Fragrances Ltd, the Takasago Central Research Laboratory in Tokyo, the Toho University School of Medicine, Tokyo, and Yale University, Psychology professor, Robert A Baron, at the Renselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, for example, has found that people in pleasantly scented rooms carry out their work with more confidence, more efficiency and with greater willingness to resolve conflict.

From my postbag it is patently clear that tremendous interest in the behaviour changing potential of aroma exists among the new generation of psychology students.

As a subject, olfaction has become a hot item among a whole range of scientific researchers for several reasons. The fact that olfactory cells regenerate every thirty to forty days makes them unique among brain and central nervous system cells, and rather exciting components of neurobiology. The olfactory receptor system also involves P-proteins, G-proteins and GABA receptors, which are interesting for various reasons, and by understanding how they work, many other physiological mysteries may be revealed.

However, a vast body of research is also being done on the psychological effects of aroma because these have powerful commercial implications, and projects can easily attract funding.

When I read research papers involving essential oils I am more often than not surprised at the choice of oils, and the volumes at which they are used. For example, one trial exploring the sedative effects of lavender on elderly patients involved putting three drops of lavender on their pillows. Lavender is an adaptogen which means it can have one effect in low dosage and another in a high dosage. Depending on the person on whom it is being used, one drop of lavender oil should be quite sufficient to make anyone sleep, while three could have the opposite - stimulant effect.

Another problem, of course, is that you cannot patent nature. Sorry, but Mother Nature Inc. has got the patent already. To register a patent you've got to invent something, and essential oils were invented a very long time ago. The people who fund research into the psychological effects of odour want to be able to exploit the information they get. To do this, they've got to come up with a new combination of chemicals and register it for a particular purpose.

Man-made aromas (like drugs) can also elicit behavioural change - which are prone to the vicissitudes of the weather and pests, and liable to degrade quicker - more troublesome than synthetically produced products. Consequently, the research is directed at finding which combination of man-made chemicals elicit certain responses. 

The end result, of course, is that you and I are increasingly going to be exposed to these chemicals as the research turns into practical applications. The important question for the future is not ' are we going to use aroma to change behaviour?', which is going to happen anyway, but, ' are we going to use man-made chemicals, or essential oils?'

Reference: The Fragrant Mind: Valerie Ann Worwood


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