Publications like Scientific American and Psychology Today have examined our sense of smell and its emotion-triggering component, and many books tout the connection between fragrance, memory and mood. Companies sell scented candles, household cleaners and mindset-enhancing essential oils. Workplaces and medical clinics purchase scent-diffusing systems to make employees more productive or patients more relaxed.
Science and commerce agree: The way to your heart may actually be through your nose.
Not many people have explored the mind-nose connection more thoroughly than Catherine Haley Epstein, a Camas-based artist, fragrance expert and author of “Nose Dive: A Book for the Curious Seeking Potential Through Their Noses.”
“The nose and scent is the fastest hit to the limbic system,” Epstein said, referring to the part of the brain that processes emotions and memory. Scents are an even more direct route to this part of the brain than sight, Epstein said. That’s why we like particular smells; they instantly connect us to happy recollections. She said it’s no wonder people are hungry for scent during the pandemic, because it’s the quickest possible way to feel better.
“Being aware of scent is great because you can use that to calm yourself, even by deep breathing,” Epstein said.
Epstein is one of the world’s leading experts in understanding and creating scents, as well as using scents to enhance creativity. Her list of accolades in the fragrance world is quite extraordinary; visit her website at mindmarrow.com or read her profile on the perfumery site cafleurebon.com. Her credentials include serving as a panelist at the recent Digital Scent Week and speaking at Milan’s 2019 Esxence conference. In 2016, she exhibited a fragrance project at the AIX Scent Fair at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. She earned the Perfumed Plume Award in Fragrance Journalism for an article in Temporary Art Review and she’s been nominated for a second Perfumed Plume for “Nose Dive.” Her most recent exhibit was “The Flower, the Witch and the Pool Toy” at Luke’s Frame Shop in Portland, a multisensory installation about women and aging that opened in early March but was interrupted by the pandemic.
Epstein has also created or collaborated on perfume scents, such as Scent Trunk’s ylang ylang and rose quartz fragrance, released in May at www.scenttrunk.com, and the 2017 fragrance collaboration with artist Rory Sparks, “No. 2: An Homage to the Pencil.” In 2018, she helped develop a custom candle and room spray for Nashville’s Bode Hotel.
In short, Epstein really knows noses.
Before she became a world-class smeller, however, Epstein said she’d “been through many lives,” including working as a journalist for TheStreet.com, an online news service covering business and stock markets. Montreal-born Epstein grew up in Boston and was educated in New York before moving to San Francisco and then to the Portland area. Her career as a management consultant eventually brought her to the art world, where she managed and owned galleries before devoting herself full time to writing and art creation.
“I’m an artist and writer. I have been for the last 14 years and in the last 11 years I’ve been working with scent as a medium. It started out as a little tiny piece of an installation and it changed my world,” Epstein said.
She created an exhibit for Portland’s PushDot Studio in 2010. The installation contained a fragrance element, so to learn more about scent creation, Epstein went to San Francisco to study with fragrance guru Mandy Aftel, author of “Fragrant: The Secret Life of Scent.”
Epstein found the process creatively stimulating and even after the exhibit’s success, she continued to explore her sense of smell. She began deliberately scenting her creative workspace.
“The rest of my artwork all changed as I was using my scent in the studio,” Epstein said. “Over the course of several years, it just started getting looser, more abstract. I equate that to the fact that I was using scent.”
This may be because fragrances stir up feelings and memories, establishing connections between disparate concepts and resulting in interesting new ideas or striking juxtapositions.
“When you do scent work, you really have to slow down and be comfortable in that ambiguous zone, but it’s really powerful when you do,” Epstein said.
It’s this quality that can also make smelling — that is, paying close attention to ambient smells — useful to counteract the daily anxiety of the pandemic. Instead of living mindfully, try living smellfully.
Epstein doesn’t advise over-scenting your environment with powerfully scented candles and other products, which can overload the nose and crowd out other scents. Instead, Epstein says, just go outside.
“Go for a five-minute walk to observe the smells, even if you just take some grass in your yard and squeeze it in your fingers and smell it,” Epstein said. She also recommends rubbing a sprig of mint or a tomato leaf so that it releases its fragrance.
“There’s a lot of native plants here — the pine and sage, it’s just waiting around for us to grab a little piece and macerate it in our fingers,” Epstein said. “Just the act of walking and smelling and not knowing exactly what it is but considering it. That slowing down of your brain using scent is really, really calming.”
Other outdoor smell-exercises (smellercises?) include walking around your neighborhood and writing down five smells that come to you. Try to describe unfamiliar smells, and notice your reaction to each odor you encounter.
“Things like dryer exhaust coming out of a house, that’s a valid smell,” Epstein said. “It can be like, ‘Oh gosh, that barbecue smell makes my whole day really happy.’ ”
Indoors, try making your own aromas. Epstein recommends using citrus fragrances in the bathroom or throwing a lemon in the garbage disposal, because that smell signifies “clean.” To get your nose activated in the kitchen, she suggests sauteing onions. Even burning unscented candles can be fun for your nose.
“A simple candle that has no smell actually does have a smell,” Epstein said. “There’s something there, and then when you blow it out, that smell is amazing.”
Even commonplace smells can be powerfully evocative.
“It doesn’t have to be perfumey,” Epstein said. “Simple fragrances are everywhere in our lives, like our kids’ heads when they’ve come in from playing.”