Monday, December 22, 2014

Connecting with Scent

Smells are powerful things.

Journey with me as I take us on a brief science lesson into the power of scent...

Whenever I walk past a place baking fresh bread, I am filled with memories.  Not just memories of events, like baking with my Granny as a child or laughing with friends in a bakery kitchen back when I was in Colorado,  but body memories.  My biology remembers hundreds of times when I ate similar carbohydrate rich baked goods, and my body can recall the pleasantness of getting a boost of serotonin.

Smell is not just linked to the thought of a happy event from the past; it's linked to physical, mental, and emotional processes in our bodies.

Of course, not all smells are associated with positives.

There is a small almond-sized part of the brain called the amygdala.  Our sense of smell is the only sense that goes straight to the amygdala.  Do you know what the amygdala does?  It regulates emotion.  Also, it sends out signals if triggered by something to Fight, Flee, or Freeze.  This means that when you smell something associated with early trauma, you may be triggered to fight or run away.  Sometimes that doesn't exactly look like punching or actual running, either.  You may have your stomach and other muscles clench, or perhaps you may even check out for a bit.

This is why smell is so powerful.  For better or for worse.

All those memories of terrible events or illnesses, evoking physical, emotional, and mental reactions, are linked in the brain with certain smells because you smelled something (we are always breathing :) when something bad was going on.  The smell and the memory (stimuli) "wired" together in the brain.  And what wires together will "fire" together.

For example, if you had an illness where you were hospitalized early in your life, your small nose inhaled certain smells (medicines, solvents, cleaners, sterilization chemicals, plastic tubing from IVs, and the list goes on and on).  All of these smells are now linked, or firing together, with the stressful medical event, which was encoded in the brain as trauma1.  Therefore, it's very possible that you may have a stress response (be triggered by the amygdala to fight or flee) when you enter a hospital or smell a similar sanitizing cleaning product.  This is just one example, but because there are many, many smells associated with multiple unpleasant memories or stressful events.  Thousands of similar scenarios exist.

But here is the good news, my friends! 

The brain is plastic2; it has the ability to make new connections and re-wire!  But it cannot do this alone, it needs relationships.

This is why, in my home, we use smell as a big part of the way we connect with our children.  Connecting with others can be a challenge for my kiddos.  Re-wiring all the negative processes in the brain takes time.  But I believe that pure, pleasing smells help us bond with our children, and enhance our ability to bring them healing.

The smell of fresh-baked treats made from whole foods is now paired with the experience of me looking after their dietary needs and nurturing their bodies.  The sweet aroma of a high quality massage oil (free of chemical solvents and artificial ingredients, of course) is combined with safe, loving touch from Mama and Daddy.  We even incorporate some pure, high quality scents into everyday activities like homeschool time and our bedtime routine to reinforce the positive experiences we try to provide for our kids.

A quick note about the purity of a smell for foster or adopted kiddos: Since their sensory memory contains many artificial smells, chemical solvents, and smells of multiple toxins from their previous environments, carefully choosing a pure, high-quality scent to aid in connection is key!

So the moral of this science story is that connecting with our kids can be enhanced with the help of pure aromas.  Also, we must keep in mind our children's past when they are "acting a fool" because they may just be triggered by some smell that connected them back to their trauma.  In knowing this, we can be better equipped to re-wire their brains (and our own:) to connection!

What are ways you have seen smell play a role in your's or your children's lives, positively or negatively?

1 comment :

  1. I am learning so much from you! So fascinating and true. Smells definitely bring me back to memories as a child quicker than anything else. Love that our brains can be rewired when something isn't a positive memory. Thankful God made our bodies in such a way that it is possible.

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