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Aromatherapy for Creativity

Photography: Diego A. Marino

For Proust, it was famously the taste of a Madeleine dipped in limeflower tea that sent him spinning into an involuntary memory. He needn’t have worked so hard. Just sniffing the biscuit would have been enough to spark those associations and make him indifferent “to the vicissitudes of life… its disaster innocuous, its brevity illusory.”

Even more than taste, smell has the strongest connection to memories and mood. A quick whiff of something familiar — fresh bread, wet leaves, the sort of rice pudding we ate as children — can quickly affect how we feel and what we’re thinking.

For creative workers attempting to think out of the present and produce new ideas then, scent can be a very powerful creative tool.

Deep Breaths Now
The easiest way aromatherapy can work is by removing the stress of an impending deadline, replacing pressure with the sort of relaxation that lets the mind focus on something other than an angry client.

That’s easily done. A few drops of something calming into a warm bath — or in the middle of a busy work day, into a diffuser or even just a scented candle — might be enough to lower the blood pressure and spark creativity. An odor without specific associations such as Jasmine, Lavendar or Cedarwood is likely to work best here and can be easily picked up in most decent health food stores. Dr. Joie Power, a neuropsychologist and an expert on aromatherapy, offers a number of scent recipes here which she says can inspire creativity but which are most likely to simply smell nice and make you feel good.

The idea isn’t to direct your mind, but to release it. If concerns about the work you need to do next, fear that you won’t finish on time or distractions about what you’re going to have for supper tonight are blocking your color choices, subject ideas or design directions, then just closing your ideas and letting a sweet aroma pull your thoughts away could be enough to remove your blocks.

You could even try skipping the essential oils and taking a leaf out of an Asian sutra by burning an incense stick. The scent would be relaxing, the curling smoke would be inspiring, and sight of the stick slowly burning down would be a gentle reminder to get on with it before time runs out.

An alternative approach though is to use scent to spark particular associations. That’s harder to do but it can be very powerful. Looking at pictures of woodland, for example, might be helpful when trying to create a design with a natural theme, but if the scent of eucalyptus can almost physically you take to a wood you visited in your youth then the inspiration will be a great deal stronger than anything images can produce — and the result a great deal more effective.

What Does This Remind you of?
The challenge here is to know what agents are most likely to spark your memories, and how to find them. One option might be to spend a few minutes in a store testing various Bach aromatherapy oils and making notes of what each smell makes you imagine. But as Proust spent thousands of pages trying to explain, memory is often sparked when you least expect it. The smell of a rubber ball, for example, could be enough to place you in a school gym — a useful place to be for a designer working on website for a sports company. Sparking that sort of memory would be relatively simple but freshly-cut grass brings summer to mind for many and that’s not always easy to get hold of.

It might still be worth creating a database of aroma-memory associations so that you know where to turn depending on the project. You might well find that it’s even more valuable than the sort of inspiring image banks and magazine references that many of us turn to when looking for ideas.

Of course, you also have to know what to do with the associations once you receive them. That’s where your creativity and production skills have to come into play. Unfortunately, it’s not possible to impregnate a website with scented oils (although choosing particular kinds of wood or fabric might work in an interior design, at least for a while). And the associations sparked by an aroma are always unique. For you, cut grass might spark thoughts of lazy summers and relaxing lake trips; for someone else it might mean memories of sweaty, wasted days mowing the neighbor’s lawn for a few extra bucks.

There are however, a few aromas that can be almost guaranteed to have positive associations. Supermarkets pipe the air from their bakeries into their ventilation systems because they know they’ll make the stores more inviting. At least one company sells a product designed to reproduce the smell of a new car.

If you really want to create an inspiring association though, you could trying spraying your office with Comme des Garcon’s new 888 Perfume which was designed to replicate the smell of gold. It might not inspire your designs but it could motivate you to produce one. At the very least, you’ll smell like success.

[tags] aromatherapy, creativity [/tags]

One Comment

  1. Robin Ann Peters Says:

    So true!

    I wrote an article about this very thing, which if your readers are interested, I am sure they will enjoy very much: http://www.robin-ann.com/2008/01/want-to-remember-something-sniff-this.html

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