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Pain/Brain: How Odors Change Things

image of enraged black man in hospital bed.

This is Part 1 of Pain/Brain: How Odors Change Things. The perception of pain is picked up by the brain through smelling odors and aromas, or not.

I came across John McGann, PhD, who studies the olfactory system in humans and mice, and is an associate professor of psychology and behavioral and systems neuroscience at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

He researches the mechanisms by which the brain interprets odors and the psychological and perceptual effects of how we feel when we smell.

In fact, Dr. McGann and other scientists have found that expectations and experience affect our perception of the smells we perceive. This olfactory mechanism in turn influences how we’re feeling emotionally and physically.

The brain’s responses are determined not just by those scents that are physically in the nose, but also by the collected history of previous olfactory experiences.*

The sense of smell is constantly changing and adapting. In terms of pain, odors can change the brain. This is why aromatherapy is useful in relieving pain, not to mention anxiety and stress.

Using What Works for YOU 

Although he is cautious,** Dr. McGann acknowledges the preliminary evidence that emotional states like anxiety can influence and be influenced by the process of inhalation.

Without getting too technical, the research on olfaction of mice has pointed to brain change, based on several factors:

  • the odors in one’s living environment
  • experiences of encountering specific smells during positive or unpleasant experiences
  • learning to expect a particular odor in particular circumstances

This research is relevant to aromatherapists, because the findings bear on which essential oils and aromas may be suggested. The following can influence choice:

  • the importance of the smell of a client’s home
  • the ability to appreciate that a client’s perception of an odor may not be the same as the therapist’s
  • the idea that “changing brains” –brains in the process of shifting due to anticipation, memory and expectation –may require changing aromatherapy suggestions.

Body Pain/Brain State

By tapping into brain mechanisms, it is possible to intentionally change how a person experiences his/her olfactory world.

This is what happens when using tapping or Emotional Freedom Technique as the first step in a change process.

Aroma Freedom Technique (AFT) is the second and final step towards mental, emotional, physical and spiritual freedom for the people I serve.

Eliminating body pain using oils is thus spurred by changes to the brain state using tapping and consultation. Each person must be assessed holistically and it is not “one oil fits all.” Considerations include:

There are different types of pain afflicting mind-body-spirit-emotional health, and the presenting pain may be long-standing (chronic) or short term (acute).

Men and women perceive odors differently and will prefer different essential oils and aromatherapy approaches to relieve their pain.

Due to biology, there are specific uncut essential oils that relate to a gender’s handling of pain and brain aspects (in the sense of mood).

In Part 2 of this article we will look at how pain perceived by the brain may be lessened with the use of essential oils.

–Rev. Niamo Nancy Muid

*Research on the olfactory system has surged since Linda B. Buck and Richard Axel cracked the genetic code for odor receptors. For their work they won the Nobel Prize in 2004).

**Japanese and European studies, on the other hand, have repeatedly found that anxiety, pain and brain function are correlated to relief and/or positive brain function, based on inhalation of various essential oils.

Additional Resource

In “The Power of Olfaction in The Relief of Pain,” a controversial rodent study is cited. It found anxiety behavior can be passed down “…through the sense of smell, even for several generations.

“In this experiment, mice were trained to fear the chemical smell of acetophenone+ by simultaneously being exposed to the scent while receiving small electric shocks. [T]he rodents learned to associate acetophenone with pain… [This was] made evident by a shuddering response in the presence of the scent but in the absence of electrical shocks.

“…[T]he offspring of the sensitized male mice exhibited increased sensitivity when introduced to its smell. Furthermore, the third generation and the mice conceived in vitro by these sensitized male mice inherited this same fearful reaction.

“The researchers found … frightened mice [responses] correlated to changes in the brain structures responsible for the processing of odors. Specifically, the acetophenone-sensitized mice and their decedents had a greater number of neurons that produce a receptor protein for this odor… The receiving structures to the … receptors, such as those involved with fear, were also larger.”

Downloaded from http://ndnr.com/pain-medicine/the-smell-of-pain/ on March 15, 2017.

+Acetophonone is an aromatic ketone used by perfumers, which smells like almond, cherry, honeysuckle, jasmine, and strawberry.


Claim Note:

The HealMobile is dedicated to dramatically improving your life. However, services and information on this website are not substitutes for medical or psychological diagnosis or prescription, nor do we recommend treatment, caring for or cure of any disease. See a doctor or mental health professional for long-standing conditions. Share your interest in the self-care techniques mentioned here with him or her, and note the response.

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