Essential oils have many possible routes into the energetic and physical body. This article will discuss olfaction and its powerful ability to affect the brain. In scientific terms, olfaction is defined simply as smelling. Whether it is through direct deep inhalation or simply breathing as we pass through the world of scent in our daily activities, we engage in olfaction every waking and sleeping moment of our life. It is believed that the sense of smell is with us literally to the last breath we take. As Aromatherapists it is important to examine olfaction on a deeper level and explore its powerful connection to the limbic system and the cerebral cortex.
It is useful in discussing the limbic system to briefly touch on the basic function of the cerebral cortex. The cerebral cortex is considered to be the area of higher brain function. It enables us to think, create, remember, and learn. This is where we consciously “make up our minds.” From this place of decision arises actions. In the brain, the cerebral cortex could be considered functionally Yang.
In contrast, the limbic system is home to our instinctual behaviors as well as our automatic emotional response. Our immediate “gut” reactions to stimuli occur here. The limbic response is not one involving conscious control. It is considered to be an area of lower brain function. In Taoism, the nature of limbic functioning is deep and while it is dependent on the higher brain function to act it provides the desire and motivation to do so. It is therefore considered functionally Yin.
Structurally, the prominent anatomical parts of the limbic system are: the amygdala, fornix, mammilary bodies, septum, hippocampus, thalamus, and hypothalamus. In recent years, it has become widely accepted that the frontal cortex is also a structure of the limbic system. All of these work together, regulating emotion by sending projections to each other and to the hypothalamus (Price, 2012).
In and Out
The hypothalamus is pivotal in acting to coordinate the unconscious effects of emotion on the functioning of the physical body in maintaining homeostasis. It controls heart rate, blood pressure, sleep, respiration, and hormone secretion, just to name a few. From the limbic response through the hypothalamus to the body we see an outward cascade affecting our physiology (Price, 2012). In energetic terms, the balance of Yin and Yang in the organs and ultimately the entire constitution is fluctuating constantly around our emotions. According to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), disease that is not initiated by a traumatic external force-such as a car accident, sunstroke, toxicity, or infection-is the result of the internalization of negative emotional states.
In a strictly scientific sense, essential oils are made up of molecules belonging to chemical components that have been proven in many cases to have certain discernable biochemical properties. These properties act on the structures of the human physical body in predictable ways. Their actions are antidepressive, antifungal, anti-inflammatory, antispasmodic, analgesic, central nervous system sedative, rubefacient, and so forth.
There also exists a rich and ancient tradition of Aromatherapy. In an alchemical, energetic sense essential oils can increase Yin or Yang, disperse excesses, and tonify deficiencies. Their actions might be cooling, warming, drying, moisturizing, opening to intuition, soothing to the heart, protective to the psyche, grounding, or balancing.
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