Scent & Touch

Scent & Touch

There has been an emerging realization that the sense of smell is more important to human well-being than has been acknowledged by science over the last hundred years (McGann, 2017). Recent evidence has highlighted the potentially positive impact that pleasant ambient scents can have on our social, emotional, and cognitive well-being. Scents, very often those associated with flowers, herbs, and spices, and other plants can be used to help us relax and sleep better at night, while making us more alert and productive during the day (Spence, 2021). 

In particular, no other human sense has such a strong link to emotions as the sense of smell. The effects of scent, aroma, and smell can help improve our mood and help us to relax and these conclusions have been supported in a diverse set of studies. For instance, in one controlled experimental study results indicated that anger and the resulting dangerous driving behaviour in angry drivers was reduced with the use of Rose scent. Smelling Rose resulted in the lowest average speed, no accidents and drivers being more cautious and relaxed than with the use of other scents. Similarly, the scents of Rose and Peppermint appeared to be the most suitable to increase the well-being of drivers

People with dementia, when exposed to pleasant natural garden smells have had observable benefits in their mental and physical health, decreased agitated behaviour, improved cognitive functioning and general well-being - nature scents may function as a catalyst for sensory awareness and memories for this particular group. Findings supported the understanding that experiencing the smell of plants, especially Geraniums may facilitate stress reduction and support mental recovery

Aromatherapy, as one example of a complimentary health intervention (Perry & Perry, 2018) brings together the multisensory benefits of both touch and scent. One aim of aromatherapy can be directed at improving psychological distress and stress through a mind–body–spirit interaction. These may be achieved via the interpersonal relationship with the therapist, the massage and touch provided by the therapist and/or the powers of the essential oils themselves. Aromatherapy and complementary massage therapies in general, fulfil important psychological benefits and their effects seem to be through a multi-sensory environment – often with the combined use of auditory stimulation such as calming sound and music.

Touch is the earliest form of sensory experience and is typically experienced through the skin which is the largest organ of our bodies. Touch in early life influences neurobiological development and can help reduce heart rate and blood pressure and help us to feel calmer and less stressed by reducing the release of cortisol and increasing oxytocin, a hormone known for promoting emotional wellbeing, and thus seems to have a beneficial role for our immune response. Touch deprivation is therefore associated with increased anxiety, depression, and immune system disorders. Skin-to-skin contact immediately after birth has been shown to help regulate the new born child’s temperature, heart rate, and breathing, and decreases crying (Ferber, Feldman, & Makhoul, 2008) and helps to increase mothers' relaxation.  Studies using brain scans have found that the brain becomes more ‘calm’ in response to stress when there is physical touch in later development and adulthood. Research also suggests a negative correlation between touch and the severity of borderline personality disorder (BPD) symptoms (Field, 2010): the more sensitive touch experienced the less the symptoms of BPD. Moreover, massage therapy has been shown to ease depression, increase attentiveness and enhance immune function (Lindgren, Jacobsson & Lamas, 2014).

Written by Dr Joe Hinds (MSc, PG Dip, DPhil) on behalf of Menteath

Author of Ecotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice 

Buy Book here

In this thought-provoking book, Jordan and Hinds provide a comprehensive exploration of this emerging area of practice. Divided into three parts, the book offers a unique examination of a range of theoretical perspectives, unpacks the latest research and provides a wealth of illuminating practice examples, with a number of chapters dedicated to authors' own first-hand experiences of the positive psychological effects of having contact with nature.

Lindgren L, Jacobsson M, Lämås K. (2014). Touch Massage, a Rewarding Experience. Journal of Holistic Nursing. 32.
Ferber, Feldman & Makhoul (2010). The development of maternal touch across the first year of life. Early Human Development, 84.

Field, T. (2010). Touch for socioemotional and physical well-being: A review. Developmental Review, 30.

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