According to scent chemist Steve Pearce[i], the sense of smell is by far the most powerful of all our senses, yet it is also our most underrated sense. Smell is the only one of our senses directly hard-wired to our brains. As such, it is the direct extension of the brain. Its direct contact means we get a very quick, very intensive reaction to odours. But perhaps more importantly, smell is directly connected to spatial communication. It is our conduit to particles signatures contained within a space.
Smell is the only developed sense in an infant: “When a baby it is our only way of communicating with the world. We can identify our parents by their smell and that’s how a newborn find its mother’s breast” [ii]. But that acute sense of smell we have as babies doesn’t stay with us for long. As we get older, we abuse our taste buds, and dull this dimension of perception. Despite the fact that we tend to undervalue smell, it is actually a very important part of our daily lives: we use it for eating (taste comes from our sense of smell) and sexual attraction (pheromones are smelled and attract genetic compatible partners).
Ancient cultures recognized the communicative power of scent and developed aromatherapy for psychological and emotional well-being. Perfumes and fragrances can be traced to many ancient cultures, most notably to the ancient Egyptian civilization. Egyptians associated their perfumes with the gods: the fragrances were considered to be the sweat of the sun-god, Ra. Cleanliness was highly valued by ancient Egyptians and perfume was a further way of cleansing oneself. Given the influences of ancient Egypt on the ancient Roman and Greek civilizations, the use of scents spread throughout the ancient world. As scent healer Ross Heaven[iii] explains, the ancient Greeks believed that sweet aromas were how the deities made their presence known. The oracle priestesses of Delphi would sit in the smoke of bay leaf incense to allow these gods to speak through them during divinations to help people in their search for love. Ancient Greek medical thinkers also understood the power of smell as a healing agent. They practiced an ancient form of aromatherapy, finding certain smells to improve health and vitality. Other ancient cultures, such as ancient Iranians and the ancient Chinese, also prized fragrances, though the Chinese used scent in the form of incense instead of perfumes to be worn. Their practices involved burning incense to help create harmony and balance. Smudging, burning dried herbs in the house or around a person, are forms of aromatherapy that are an integral part of many contemporary indigenous healing cultures.
The sense of smell is handled by the limbic system, which controls our emotions, so perfumes evoke feelings as well as memories, and we experience not just an odor but also a mood. Today, smudging, incents and essential oils are used to naturally purify the air, but also to help with mental distress.
Given that smell is so powerful, I began to understand that our air is probably the least considered environmental issue in a household yet it is probably the most important. We smell everything space contains and whether we realize it or not, we are affected by its’ contents. While aromatherapy is used to promote healing and well-being, what do chemicals contained in most of our households via furniture, cleaning products, clothes, carpets, paints, and so one, do to our limbic system? How do these toxins affect our moods, mental states and sensory health?
These questions led me to consider air as the most important element to pay attention to in my children’s lives. A few things became important to me: to filter the air, to reduce the air toxicity, to reintroduce healthier vital signature and to cleanse the air as naturally as possible. The cheapest and most immediate way to do this was to introduce plants to the bedrooms of my children.
NASA[iv] has done a lot of research on plants’ capacity to enrich the air of an environment and to act as filters. Researchers from NASA and other organizations recommend at least 15-18 good-sized plants for a house or apartment of 1800 square feet or 167 square meters. Not all plants filter the air but some are extremely good at it. For example, a Peace lily (Spathiphyllum ‘Mauna Loa’) will filter benzene, formaldehyde, trichloroethylene, Xylene, Toluene and ammonia. Others, such as ferns release oxygen in the space. Not only do plants help neutralize toxic chemical signatures, they also contribute to the creation of a more natural space.
We now know, for example, that buildings and cities can affect our mood and well-being, and that specialized cells in the hippocampal region of our brains are attuned to the geometry and arrangement of the spaces we inhabit, what is called spatial cognition (Grieves, Jeffery and Jeffery, 2016)[v]. Unfortunately, urban architects often pay little attention to the potential cognitive effects of their buildings on people. Yet, we know these buildings might shape the behaviours of those who will live with it. The space itself can be an issue, so it is worth spending some time thinking about how a specific room is affecting a child. Since it is not always possible to understand what is affecting my children in the house, I try to think of other ways of incorporating nature in my children’s lives. A walk in the forest, or a park can help rebalance the senses; it also reduces anxieties and anger.
Building a sensory garden can be helpful. It doesn’t have to be big. While a plot of land would be ideal, a balcony is a great place for a garden, create a sensory garden with plants that stimulate various senses. The site planet natural[vi] has some good suggestions.
I evaluated my sons’ spaces for sound, visual, heat, touch and other sensory stimuli. Heavy blankets, sensory tools have been helpful in dealing with some of their issues. Neutral tone colors for the walls keep the rooms visually simple. Seating balls and fidget toys have been very helpful but the most helpful inside tool has been a small trampoline to help my kids move the body. Carpets and wall covering can take away sound echoes that are too strong for a child.
Another way to clean the air is with aromatherapy. Using sage to clean the air and often essential oils to clean and other smells to affect my children’s mood as we will see later on in this chapter. As I discovered its healing power, I studied to become an aromatherapist, the modality that, in the end, helped my children the most.
I try to reduce the amount of pollution I bring in the house. When I need a new piece of furniture, I now look for natural material, such as wood, unvarnished if possible. I clean with natural products and treat with oils instead of varnish, etc. I buy cotton instead of synthetic materials. In other words, I simplified what comes into my home. I switched from chemically based cleaning products to natural cleaning processes.
Our spaces now also have a technological layer. You can buffer technological signals from a tv and a computer with screen filters. I removed all technologies from the boys’ bedrooms. The only sound at night has been my voice when reading a book to help them fall asleep and as they aged, that got replaced with music or an ambient sound to help them sleep.
Another element central to spatial health is the quality of the “energy” it carries. Plants help to neutralize these energies, but humans and animals can make space toxic through the stress they carry. I began to understand that my children need natural energy signature to feel well. Getting dogs has helped my children tremendously. The way these companions love unconditionally allows my children to have a buffer to hard emotions. And the dirt they carry into the house somehow helps boost child’s immune system.
Eventually, it became very clear that adult stress was one of the most significant pollutants of my children’s space. As a result, creating healthier relationships in our family became a priority. That process began with my learning to listen deeply.
Previous: Chapter 7: Introduction
Next: Healthy Listening: Deeper Listening
[iii] Heaven, Ross and Charing, Howard (2006). Plant Spirit Shamanism: Traditional Techniques for Healing the Soul. Destiny Books (August 3, 2006)
[v] Roddy M. Grieves, Kate Jeffery and Kate J. Jeffery. “The representation of space in the brain”. Behavioural Processes, December 2016