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Awakening your sense of smell

We use our sense of smell all the time – does a shirt need to be washed or aired? Are spices sufficiently fragrant before adding other ingredients to a dish? Is that smoke? But beyond the everyday, smell is also a powerful emotional trigger. Catch a whiff of the scent you wore as a young adult and you’re transported to that time, or sniff something sweet baking and you’re suddenly awash in a memory of your mother. Barring perhaps music, there is nothing more evocative than the olfactory sense.

Smell and memory are linked because of the anatomy of the brain, says Harvard’s Venkatesh Murthy, chair of the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology. Whereas other senses take a more circuitous route, odours are processed directly by the limbic system, including the amygdala and the hippocampus, the regions related to emotion and memory. And this starts very early; babies in the womb have already developed a sense of smell, so by the time they’re born they can smell about as well as you or I.

A loss of smell can be devastating and disorienting beyond not being able to taste food well. It can mean becoming divorced from some of our most intense memories. But the olfactory bulb, the nerve responsible for picking up scents, can be worked like a muscle with exposure therapy – that is, purposefully filling your environment with different, pleasant smells to keep your nose well trained. This is important to do even if you haven’t experienced a loss of smell.

So how can we best bring rousing aromas to our everyday lives? Scented candles bring both soft light and smell into a room. You might want to go for an aromatic scent like a neroli, or for something subtle such as jasmine. Even unlit candles release a scent, so dot them around your house, and especially in a bathroom, for a gentle boost. (Plus, with rolling blackouts, it doesn’t hurt to have candles about…)

Room diffusers also lightly spread a scent throughout a space, giving it a particular atmosphere. A seaweed and samphire reed diffuser, for example, gives off clean notes of sea air for a refreshing ambiance.

No matter what you choose, enlivening this vital sense buoys the mood, so pay attention. It’s nothing to sniff at…

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