Just in time for Valentines’ Day, we are going to explore the relationship between scents and sensuality. Chocolate and flowers are the undisputed champions of Valentine’s Day gift giving. Chocolate for its aphrodisiac qualities and general awesomeness; flowers for their beauty and symbolism. It is indeed evocative that flowers are a plant’s reproductive structure, but for our purposes, we’ll explore how their scents can be sensually intoxicating.
Remember Marcel Proust’s madeleine moment? In his Remembrance of Things Past, the French author describes a remarkable experience his narrator has eating a cookie. After tasting a madeleine dipped in tea, he was instantly and involuntarily swept away into a delicious memory:
“No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin.”
This transportation elevated him to an “all-powerful joy.” That flavor could have such a profound impact suggests that free-floating, all-pervasive scent might even have an even broader sphere of influence.
Because they are regulated by the same sensory receptors, taste and smell are intimately entwined. Their influence is manifest in the olfactory nerves which are part of the brain’s limbic system. Made up of the hypothalamus, the amygdala, and the hippocampus, the limbic system controls such functions (parenthetically translated for Valentine’s Day) as motivation (lust), emotion (love), learning (sensitivity and emotional intelligence), and memory (misty, water-colored memories). When we smell or taste something wonderful, our brains are basically programmed to respond.
Scents surround us. Whether or not we are conscious of them, they act on the brain and thus the body. Though science has yet to confirm or deny the presence of pheromones in humans, the fact that scents affect us is indisputable. Scents can raise alarm or lower stress, they can change our mood and inspire our libido. They always have.
Aphrodite used rose petals. The Goddess of Love was the queen of the seductive arts, perfume was her strong suit. The path through her boudoir leading to her bed was strewn with rose petals. Aromatherapy has been trying to replicate her seductive sense ever since. Though Cleopatra did not know the specifics of the interplay within the brain of scents and the limbic system when she seduced Mark Antony with lavender, she intuitively knew how to get what she wanted. The Kama Sutra, the erotic tome of the rules of attraction compiled in the 2nd-century CE, advocates the use of flower essences in foreplay and sandalwood oil after union. The nose knows.
After all, our bodies, like those of lions and tigers, send and receive chemical messages of attraction. Isn’t that what Valentine’s Day is all about?