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AROMATIC TRADITION & SENSISM ©                                      

This item is the essence of my world view of Aromatherapy, Aromatics and Perfumery. Now 15 years plus old it is still on the button!

Summary of a presentation given by Jan Kusmirek to the IFA conference Warwick University September 2006

It seems to that the definition of Aromatherapy is as confused today as it was twenty years ago. The prime strength and at the same time weakness of the Therapy is its inexactness.

There is no doubt that it arose from a historical basis – it was not an invention of      hippies and the alternative communities of the late 70’s. The use of aromatics has a long tradition.

In the United Kingdom its practice was associated with massage. This happy association of touch and smell known as Aromatherapy gave rise to a new study of the senses a new scientific rationale and a reappraisal of many areas of brain chemistry. The rising popularity of Aromatherapy and publicity undoubtedly gave stimulus to academic studies. Parallel business opportunities gave the consumer at the same time a new world of cosmetics, fragrances and quasi medicine using aromatic materials.

In the therapy itself this commercialization and scientific interest gave rise to the familiar pattern of hierarchical governance i.e. beauty was the province of one group and health another. Qualifications were felt to be needed and associations were formed to establish a profession.

The rise of the spa industries during the 90’s and the emphasis on the phrase well being cut across such issues to provide multi disciplinary care. Indulgence and pampering was accepted as a means of well being and Classical Aromatherapy proved a ready vehicle for adaptation to the cult of self-indulgence.

Aromatherapy by its popularity began to demonstrate that smell and touch when applied to humans and indeed other animals was not just a biological and psychological experience but also social and cultural phenomena that had its roots in tradition.

Antiquity shows that the use of Aromatics in the Classical world was extensive. There was no clear-cut separation between cosmetics, perfume, medicine and religious use. Incense was universally used to honour the Gods. Countries and Empires were defined by their aromatic produce. Egypt for Blue Lotus, Persia for Rose, Sheba for Frankincense, Lebanon for Cedar.

Enfleurage using fats and macerations with fixed oils was commonly practiced.  From Minoa came white lily, the Etruscans used local cistus, myrtle, pine. Diluents included honey and wine and the plants used were a multitude oleander, frangipani, garlic, and nard. Egypt so often associated with Perfume was not the be all and end all of fragrance. From Rome & Greece we have many texts describing the use of aromatic herbs. Pliny records the trade with the Orient for cinnamon, ginger, saffron, iris, nutmeg and narcissus. The spice trade is not new. Corinth known for its decadence and Athens famed for its learning were both known to export thyme, marjoram, mint and sage. The Greek civilization set up in later Egypt led to the foundation of Alchemy in Alexandria.  Led by Maria the Prophetess a likely member of the local Jewish community is reputed to have created the first known still.

What else is there to say of Cleopatra and Mark Anthony? They smelt of roses from horseback to shipboard! The walls were washed with scented water, the decks swilled down, sails soaked in rose water, and the horse groomed with aromatics.

Outside of these so-called countries, other cultures and civilizations occurred with just the same tastes and desires for sweet smelling unguents and balms, medicines and fragrant woods. For example, the practice of incense burning related not just to spices and rolled sticks and powder but the sweet smell of logs from ash to apple. True tastes differ for example goose fat as a diluent but the Celts were as interested as any Egyptian in aromatics and a Sarmatian as a Roman.

Religion got to grips with pleasure and the Dark or early middle ages showed a drop in perfume use so we have been led to believe. Incense was confined to Churches where with song the crowds were transported out of mind. Modern reviews of the Troubadour movement however reveal a different story. A view of Courtly love where the rose as ever reigned supreme. Musician’s assistants and jongleurs wafted fragrant smokes, fragrant strewing herbs, bedding materials made from herbs, sweet waters and vinegars were very much in evidence. The fragrance of romance was undeniably present as ever.

Healing herbs such as Lavender were prevalent in their heartlands and the discovery by monks of Modena of the aqua mirabilis or 95% pure alcohol gave a push to using this new diluent for the making of aromatic waters or elixirs both to fragrance and to drink!

With the arrival of Descartes a new era in thinking and information process was born. His idea of mind body dualism opposed the holistic view and set modern science on a path of analysis by observation and replication.

The eventuality of this approach was commercially very acceptable to old medieval craft guilds and the rise of the new professions whereby solely for financial reasons multi disciplinary practitioners or crafts people were disparaged, discouraged and eventually persecuted. The box system of thinking and education gave a boost to all trades unions whether so called up market like the doctors unions or down market like factory hands.  The EU is playing this precise game today by virtue of trade qualification. Lateral thinking and multi tasking whilst desirable in theory is rarely seen as better than specialization.

Religious superstition has never been far from the senses of smell and touch. The very literal fear of these two senses implicated in sensuality if not eroticism was used to suppress both women’s rights and at the same time ancient or traditional herb craft. The rise of Protestantism often regarded as the enemy of superstition actually added another form of superstition which still inhabits modern medicine today and that is the deep-rooted fear of pleasure.

Such historic generalities can further lead us to see the seeds of eco socialism and political correctness and the suppression of individuality and choice as no more than some reaction to beauty, pleasure and emotional expression. Science, Medicine, Religion claimed the role of God, only the robe of the academic, religionist or government should wrap themselves in garments of aesthetic beauty. ‘Surely jeans and a tee shirt are all that is needed in a natural world’, unless of course you look at the wrapping of a rose. So why not the elegance of presentation that delights the senses when uncovering a perfume? Delighting the senses may still be cast as a sin disguised as an objection to waste in packaging. Aromatics can lead you astray and to another world.

Aromatherapy has generally been organized today under two headings. Here we can see the organization of Aromatherapy today. This cannot be understood as a new science etc as it cannot be divorced from its roots and its historical reason for existence.

In Europe from east to west the placing of herbs or minerals in a bath or pool of water for healing is as old as time. My first experience of Aromatherapy was a few drops of Lavender in a bath. Suffering from the so-called executive burn. After a bad bout of panic in Belgium Valium was prescribed. A friend suggested this old Lavender trick. Gingerly I climbed into the bath having counted my regulation drops. Nothing happened. I just sat there. Later I slept like a baby and never looked back! The power of aromatics – simple and effective.

Today there is a resurgence of bathing. Showers are out. New builds are once again adding baths that you can lie in! You can add coloured lights and water flows, candles and a partner as well as the rubber duck. Bathing is a whole body experience. Bathing with herbs or other aromatics is part of the fundaments of Nature Cure or Naturopathy ‘let the body heal itself’. Relaxing in a watery cocoon with light, steam aroma and what after all is self-massage, even if described as washing, is a sensual experience.

Despite the impression given by Hollywood bathing is as old as time. Not just literal cleansing but the act of feeling clean. The cowboy dunking their head in the water trough and Robin Hood skinny-dipping in the pond both felt good about it!

Those therapists who have not studied the basis of Slavic massage often remain confused as to how massage became so intimately involved in Aromatherapy. Certainly, the French never practiced it. Massage being a physical exercise or sensual touch has suffered discredit in favour of a higher leaning and more intellectual approach. Drinking medicine has been seen to be more effective than dermal application especially if it is applied by stroking! This intellectualization of sensual experience is not beneficial. The two approaches may not need to be conflicting but complementary.

Various physical  techniques have been proposed to conjoin aromatic herbs and essential oils and in my opinion the so called standard massage adopted as a bastard child of Swedish Massage does not suit all circumstances of Massage. Accepting that what we are discussing is therapeutic touch, which itself is also under attack from religious fanatics and political correctness, more attention should be paid to the innate ambience of the oil aroma rather than a slavish technique.

 Such attention to fragrance is a matter of routine for many commercial companies such as Aroma Therapeutics or Decleor or Elemis where specific programmes are designed to augment the aroma experience. All spa companies have to do this. We have become familiar with phrases like Tui’na, Slavic, Huna and so on. The technique is matched to the feel, touch or texture of the material being used.

There is of course a serious side to fragrance and one that appears to go beyond indulgence or pleasure. Modern science requires protocols designed to prove on a repeatable basis that a given substance will have certain actions under given conditions. Proof of efficacy with essential oils has been limited time and again to their antibiotic qualities. Reproduction requires that nature is exact which it is not. Anecdotal evidence is hardly considered and is often frankly rubbished.  My opinion echoed by some in the orthodox medical profession is that modern medicine is good at trauma but is poor with wellness.

There is a danger in popularity for aromatic materials however we describe them, as flavours or perfumes or as aromatherapy. The end result of commercialization at all levels is the reduction to price buying. This is the issue for the food industry and the problem of mass-market food through the supermarket.

Essential oils are not all the same. They can be made to be so but then do you classify them as natural. This raises the scary issue of life force and fragrance dynamics about which Fragrant Earth has always been a very firm advocate.

Price led buying always leads to destruction of quality. Jasmine becomes Jasmone. The maverick of the Perfume Industry Luca Turin wrote ’10 years ago a  fine fragrance used to cost 2 – 300 euros today 100 euros is expensive….. The cheapness of the formula is the main reason why most fine perfumes are total crap…. Slavish imitations, crass vulgarity, profound ignorance fear of getting fired, lack of inventiveness and courage…. To functional perfumers a budget of 100 euros would be like winning the lottery; 15 euros is more like it.’

His views summarise the downward slide we have witnessed in the finesse that used to be a hallmark of the perfume industry.

Classical Aromatherapy as practiced outside the hallowed halls of state or insurance funded medicine simply addresses the senses. It certainly addresses touch and smell and may involve hearing music, tasting teas, and ambient visuals. We each have according to psychologists nine intelligences; each has a name but conventionally and collectively are known as the emotional intelligences.

These intelligences are fed by our five senses now known as VAKOG, visual, auditory, kinaesthetic, olfactory, and gustatory. We concentrate on the KO but not diminishing the other three. Aromatherapy stimulates our senses. That is what it does in simplicity. It is no different now to 5,000 years ago just our culture is different.

Now we come to this strange word Sensism. ICI commissioned from Oxford University a study into a holistic approach to our senses and its likely commercial impact. Dr Charles Spence led this study and his findings integrate with our own. The industry journal SPC commented that ingredient suppliers have to be more than that but have to show initiative in providing the whole package and concept to their customers.

Sensism does require some thought. A dictionary definition is ‘the ethical doctrine that feeling is the only criteria for what is good’. It is not of course my definition but the dictionary definition. Sometimes common is added in front like a prefix. The term is in current use by scientists anxious to improve our well being and conscious of the need to address the needs of the human as multi sensory being in need of stimulation in a modern sterile world.

Aromatherapy has given birth to a welter of research and studies on what smell is and how we react to it. The linking of touch and smell was fashionably reduced in scientific circles to the status of nothing more than pampering which was fundamentally useless. Now pampering, self-indulgence or simple pleasure is seen correctly to be not hedonistic but an elemental and biological deep-rooted need that meets more intractable needs connected directly to health and our state of wellness.

As we have seen the intellectual elite of the past revalued our senses as modernism took hold. Sight became the dominant sense. Smell was declared brutish and of the lower order. Smell with its female overtones of superiority in that sense was seen as threatening to impersonal, rational detachment. It has and had emotional potency hence its banishment.

The verb to smell has come to have a negative meaning when used descriptively. This degradation is however really quite recent. Right now though, anthropologists, sociologists, historians are all into smell. Obscure hippie mumbo jumbo is now mainstream even though general science has no proof in accepted terms of the benefits of Aromatherapy. From Hi tec to fashion people are back on with smell.

Now ask how much attention in your school was given to learning about smell. Hence FSI concentrates on smell we have taught a variety of modules that offer the student the full spectrum of theories concerning the biological pathways of smell. We have taught people how to smell!

The first Anthropologist I ever really knew was John Steele some of you may know him. John like me became a perfumer. He first drew my attention to how the traditional use of perfume is still around us and practiced by many native and tribal people as it was thousands of years ago. Tradition is alive and kicking.

For example Amazonian tribes believe that tribal groups have distinct odour and this odour determines inter tribal marriage. Similarly in Malaysia tribal groups have a rule on certain odour mixing to avoid genetic issues. Most of us when we think about too recognize our families smell especially for example our grandparent’s house odour.

What constitutes a pleasant smell? Only very young children have the pleasure of smell without social stricture or cultural taboos. In Ethiopia certain tribes love the smell of cattle so much that they smear dung on their bodies to make themselves attractive.  Do you find this strange? An honest examination of what we actually enjoy smelling can be revealing. In class I ask who likes the smell of Russian Leather. This popular classic aroma also associated with handbags and car seats derives its odour from traditional tanning using dog faeces and urine. Therefore, we are not so far from our manure smearing ancestors after all.

To illustrate how our senses interact at Warwick University an informed audience of Aromatherapists, cosmeticians and others were handed a red and white wine and asked to comment. The conclusion was that the red was richer and had more fruitiness. This was a visual discrimination as only white wine had been used, the red was just coloured with an unflavoured colourant. This to some extent demonstrates how packaging and product colour influences the ’feel’ of the product. 

The same audience was treated to the jellybean test whereby the audience were asked to hold their nose and place a highly flavoured sweet in their mouth. Only when the nose was released and airflow so to speak resumed did the full flavour come to their senses. This proved that what we mostly call taste is in fact smell.

Our Managing Director at Fragrant Earth has a background in Military and Geriatric Nursing. She is very familiar with the problems of trauma and senility. Therefore for those with a mind bent on 20th century thinking rather than 21st century thinking she proposed the following series of thoughts concerning medicine and the senses.

First deal with the trauma i.e. clean the wound, next create an environment of care to aid healing (the old fashioned ‘bedside manner’). However nice the environment it is so good to get to ones own bed and just … feel at home! Wellness and recovery is a whole body experience just as our immune system is a whole body complex. Therefore, if our senses interact with our intelligences then homeostasis comes by satisfying all our senses. This is true wellness or even relaxation.

Marketing people have often posed the question ‘why did Aromatherapy become popular so quickly?’ As we have seen it was an invention of the market but was consumer driven or invented. The perfume industry resisted aromatherapy for some time. Perfuming was said to be disguise etc and rational explanations were give to hide the simple truth that we enjoy smelling nice. Pleasure and health are coming together and the ultimate perfume experience comes with touching the soul and the body. This is the ultimate point of Slavic massage for example described as another dimensional experience. A true essential oil or fine fragrance presents a sensory spectrum, it even has texture. Point of entry material leaves you hungry for more, unsatisfied.

Throughout life we gradually suffer sensory loss. Interpersonal touch is actively discouraged and societal demands work directly against our own biology. This leads to unhappiness and so often we grab at anything that reaches that sensual need for example drugs.

We have concluded that our most powerful sense linked to emotion is the sense of smell. Half of our brain is dedicated to what we see but more of our genes are dedicated to odour than any other kind of sensory input. Smell, which is therefore in our very make up, must play a bigger role than we realize. As cosmetologists, scientists perfumers or aromatherapists we harness smell to evoke or provoke an emotional response. Smell opens up long lost unused communication channels and artfully combined with touch leads to a better feeling of general health.

As hinted at before when I mentioned tribal odours everybody has a unique odour or taste – except identical twins. This odour though varies with the status of your health. Past and present societies have diagnosed disease by odour alone. Science today have diagnostic sniffers that determine by our body odour our health status.

The 20th century saw the peak of vision as a dominant sense. As we move into the 21st scent becomes the highest value as its role is seen to determine by its connectivity to emotional well being our sense of state of being. More and more companies want signature scents. Individual spas and people want a signature scent. We should not make the mistake though of trying to create a dominant sense. The secret of tradition was a more balanced fulfillment of the senses.

Various syndromes have been identified affecting us at home or work. Sick building syndrome and seasonal disorders are common but few realize that aroma is actually often the solution. Commercially this is exploited by supermarkets who add aroma to their ventilation systems to create an atmosphere of a bakery or coffee house.

Time and again studies have shown improvements in workplace satisfaction when aroma is introduced.  Dual tasking performance is measurably improved in aromatic environment. Mood enhancement is invariably noted.

Our smelling ability plateaus at 8 years old after that it begins a long slide. We have previously assumed this was nothing to be concerned about unlike eyesight. Research now shows a different face. Psychiatric disorders invariably show as symptoms olfactory deficits. A major challenge the world faces is the rising age of the population. We can get hearing aids and glasses but what do we do about touch, taste and, smell. Elderly people tend to take more salt, fat and sugar in food to replace the loss of taste. Many problems of the elderly have this hidden deficit, which leads to other imbalance. Loss of taste therefore loss of satisfaction may lead to malnutrition. Aroma increases appetite and so benefits can be found in many relatively unexplored avenues.

If we spread out all our receptor cells from our nose we would have a sheet of about 22 square centimeters, which is surprisingly large. That is how much space is made available for a molecule to impact. Our ability to store smells in our fragrant memory was said to be limited but now we know different. From the human perspective we have unlimited odour banks.

 However compared to a dog like an Alsatian we are quite low on the scale of sniffers. A dog may have seven square meters of odour receptors. Bears travel many miles by odour to find the right berry just at its peak. The world of mammals, fish and insects is dominated by smell and certainly most creatures ‘see, by smell. 

We have not mentioned memory which features in another of my lectures on the physics of essential oils and odour molecules. Memory has long been associated with the sense of smell and the limbic area the realm of imagination dream and desire. Certainly our smelling system is related to this area, as it is with our hormonal system. Modern biology however cannot simply identify where memory resides. Like the immune system it does not find itself in one place. Some scientists advance an idea that it may even be externalized in our own ‘electrical’ field hence group or shared memories. This opens up a whole new ball game for the external use of fragrant materials some of which may be described as electrolytes.

The nose has other sensations or false smells if you like. – the somatosensory system has nerve endings in the nose which are sensitive to temperature, pain and so on. Sensation can be added to fragrance such as the cooling smell of Peppermint contrasted to its fiery taste. Sensism in product and application requires us to give consideration to the ‘feel’ of things what they evoke or provoke.

Human relationships too depend much on smell and touch. Love is the ultimate triumph of chemistry over rationality! Molecules of excitement are certainly attractants.

In perfumery the heavy perfumes have generally been the most popular over time. They could be described as Voluptuous. Historically perfume was used to emphasise not mask body odour! Musk was universally used to accentuate femininity. To appreciate fragrance we do have to change the way we use our brains and over ride our thinking or rational mechanisms.

A 13th century Arab poet wrote: – ‘Essences of roses, fragrant aloes, paint, perfume and lust: All these are ornaments of women. Take a man; and his testicles are a sufficient ornament’. That says a lot about after shaves.

As I have stated the very nature of perfume is antagonistic moralists who can always spend our money better on some other good cause than pleasure. Moralists of the last two centuries felt that as no useful function was served by scent so then there must be a hint of immorality. Any Welsh Methodist (apologies in advance to any Welsh Methodists who lack humour or have sensitivity over their nationality or faith) will find resonance in those words! Heavy animal perfumes were opposed in the extreme but unfortunately, so to speak, people like them and return again and again to the old classics.

Currently the trend in the last few years has been a battle between the more strident notes and the more feminine. Into this has come a journalistic demand for lighter and lighter perfume to its exclusion. This demand actually has a taint of political correctness, a feel of the temperance movement, and some aggression from certain alternative health lobbies all with a good  dose of Puritanism. It runs against the ideas represented by Sensism which actually promotes true human experience.

One interesting experiment shows that daily use of colognes by middle aged men reduces tension, anger, fear, fatigue, confusion, and mid life crisis. This has not yet shown up in adverts for body sprays!

Vanilla has a special place in olfaction. Universally loved there is no explanation as to why it is so popular and acceptable. True Vanilla is really very expensive. Synthetic is very cheap. Vanilla is associated with warmth, softness, caring, purity, simplicity We use an odd term – plain vanilla – it seems a strange term. We have been experimenting with different Vanilla beans over the past few years. Geographic origin often determines the finesse of aroma. Vanilla is an aroma we shall see more of in the near future as it not only has activity and general acceptance but hard evidence to support its value.

Vanillin a main component of Vanilla when given as an aroma reduced in trials the anxiety rate at a measurable level of in excess of 60% for cancer patients undergoing Magnetic Resonance Imaging. A German study emphasized its ability to reduce our startle reflex when vanilla was fragrance was present. Is that why vanilla ice cream is popular for horror movies!

I doubt you will ever find a study that says Aromatherapy works per se. There are too many elements not least the nature of the material, the circumstance of administration and last but not least the individual response. Sensism has along tradition. It is not a discredited idea but the science of the moment. It is entirely holistic improving well being and so health but also encouraging emotional stability and maturity by the stimulation of our senses by touch, taste and smell those senses so often neglected in our modern world