Awakening the senses: Savouring smells

sense smell

When it comes to creativity, it's important to have a constant stream of inspiration to draw from. If we choose to pay attention to them, our senses can offer bucket loads of material as we move through each day hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting, and touching. Paying attention to our senses helps us live in the moment, excites our curiosity, and can make us more in tune with our natural impulses. However, so many of us—myself included—go through our days without really feeling much of anything. To deepen my own awareness, my plan is to write a post on each of our senses, explaining some ways that we can focus more intently on that sense and wake ourselves up to the variety of experiences around us. Hopefully they'll help you too. So far, I've also written about taste and sight.


Our sense of smell is probably one of the most overlooked and undervalued - until we don't have it any more. We all know how it feels to be congested and not able to smell anything (which is, oddly enough, exactly how I'm feeling as I write this). Everything seems flatter, and farther removed than usual. Our sense of smell adds texture to the world, giving us a more subtle sense of our surroundings. From unpleasant sewer odours, to the unique mix of flavours of our favourite restaurant, smells help us orient ourselves and even keep us safe. I had some sandwich meat in the fridge that hadn't met its expiry date yet, but one whiff told me that it was not okay to eat. Our sense of smell is also the only one that we can strengthen through exercise. Don't think you have a sharp sense of smell? With practice, you can become more sensitive to different scents and learn to identify them better.


I've been thinking about experimenting with aromatherapy and knowing that I was going to write this post gave me a push to get started. It was a bit overwhelming to learn about at first, but with the help of a few library books and some online resources I was able to grasp the basics. While essential oils apparently have all kinds of health benefits, I wanted to experiment with them from more of a mood perspective than anything else. I like having something to focus on outside of my thoughts, and scent can be the perfect thing.

Instead of buying random oils, I decided to start by making myself an uplifting, energizing blend to use in the shower. Mornings are hard for me and I wanted something that would help perk me up and add a little decadence to the start of my day. I did a lot of research into which oils to buy, and this post was a big help in terms of how to go about making the blend.

I collected a list of scents that are classified as energizing or uplifting, and thought about which were the most interesting to me. Then I went to a local metaphysical bookstore to sniff out what I wanted to use. They had two brands of essential oils and it was really interesting smelling the differences between the same plant in different brands. After a few minutes I settled on Blood Orange (they were out of regular Sweet Orange, and this one was pretty nice), Ginger, Rosemary, and Japanese Mint. I bought 4 empty glass bottles with glass eyedroppers for mixing (I read that it's important to use bottles that are tinted either brown or blue, to protect the oils from the light, and glass bottles and eyedroppers so that they don't interact with the oils at all) and some Jojoba massage oil to dilute the essential oils.

At home I tried 3 different blends, and they were all delightful, but the third was my favourite. I used the recipe in this post again as a template for making my own blends. The general rule that she suggests is to make the blend with 30% top note, 50% middle note, and 20% base note.

  • Japanese Mint
  • Blood Orange
  • Japanse Mint
  • Blood Orange
  • Ginger
  • Rosemary
  • Blood Orange
  • Ginger

Orange: uplifting, relief from anxiety, encourage happiness, helps with focus, top note

Peppermint: good for digestion, energizing, mental focus, top note

Rosemary: anti-microbial, stimulating, fights fatigue, helps focus (can be used while driving long distances), middle note

Ginger: energizing, uplifting, middle or base note

I let them sit for 24 hours, impatiently waiting to see how the blends worked out, then I added the carrier oil. This site has a lot of great information about using essential oils safely and I used their chart to work out the ratio for a 2% dilution. Because I knew I would be using the blend on my skin, I wanted to make sure it wouldn't cause irritation, and diluting it with a neutral oil makes it safe to use.

I use it in the shower, sometimes on a cloth on the floor of the shower, or on my chest. Sometimes I just rub a few drops on my chest and inhale. While the jury's still out on whether it makes me feel more energetic, it definitely does make my daily showers more of an enjoyable ritual. This blend, I've noticed, also tends to make me hungry, which isn't surprising since all the components are from food. According to an article on New Scientist, it seems likely that the scents will have a real effect: "When Hendrick Schifferstein from Delft University of Technology and colleagues pumped the smell of orange, seawater or peppermint into a nightclub, the revellers partied harder – they danced more, rated their night as more enjoyable, and even thought the music was better – than when there was no added scent (Chemosensory Perception, vol 4, p 55). Rob Holland and colleagues at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands, meanwhile, have found that the hint of aroma wafting out of a hidden bucket of citrus-scented cleaner was enough to persuade students to clean up after themselves – even though the vast majority of them hadn’t actually registered the smell (Psychological Science, vol 16, p 689)."

Now that I've gotten the feel for playing with essential oils, I'd like to try making some relaxing blends for the evening. I'm even thinking about making my own bath bombs and bath salts. Essential oils are expensive but they go a long way: I made myself and a friend a 30ml bottle of my energizing blend, and still have so much left.

Seek out smells

Want to improve your sense of smell? Here are some more ways you can give your nose a workout:

  • Making dinner: Take a whiff of different vegetables as you chop them. Or sniff your way through your spice rack, working on learning the individual scents. Try describing them if that's fun for you. If you find your spices don't give off much aroma, they're probably too old and should be replaced.
  • See if your art supplies give off different odours. Maybe leave out the solvents and harsh chemicals, but do try smelling your pencils, pastels and even paper. The hard linoleum that I prefer to use in my linocuts has a very distinct smell, whereas the rubbery easy-cut stuff doesn't smell like anything.
  • Spend some time each season identifying the smells that mark the passing of time. In spring, can you smell the dirt and the new plant growth? What about the garbage that has been under the snow for months? In summer notice the hot asphalt and different flowers that bloom. Fall brings the scent of decaying leaves, and even the dead of winter has its own smell if you pay close attention: try sniffing someone who has just come in out of the cold.
  • I've never done this, but I think it would be fun. Next time you have a group of friends over, blindfold yourself and have them stand in front of you one by one, and see if you can identify them by their scent. Try the same thing with foods, perfumes, essential oils, etc.
  • Go to the grocery store: "Scott Carney, master sommelier and director of wine education at the International Culinary Center based in New York, teaches students to visualize the scent notes found in wine. If someone is struggling to identify an individual note—say, guava—he will send the student to the grocery-store produce aisle to find a guava. "Go smell it," Mr. Carney will say. "See what you can invoke when smells come close to that one again." "

Do you notice smells in your everyday life? What effect do they have on you? Leave a comment below!