Candles are no mere luxury. A Swiss army knife, when it comes to utility, they provide relaxation, holistic healing, and even a helping hand around the home. While innocuous and simple in their operation, they soothe your olfactory senses and order to even the most chaotic homes. Seasoned candle burners will have noticed, however, that they don’t just bring a general sense of calm. On the contrary, many candles bring a distinct experience of focus and serenity. Why is that?
The magic of candles is whipped up in the complex layering of oils and fats, whether paraffin, soy, or otherwise, that build up the finished product. The burning of a candle releases organic compounds and volatiles into the air that are inhaled and felt, through the nose or on the skin. It’s here that those compounds interact with the olfactory senses- or, perhaps more simply, your sense of smell. What’s more astonishing is exactly how the olfactory system works.
The power of smell
The easiest way to look at the impact that smell has on humans every single day is through the simple act of eating. It’s well understood just how important smell is when it comes to enjoying food. Still, some might be surprised to find that, according to scientific studies, up to 90% of the flavor experience comes from the olfactory senses, and not the taste bud. This is why people who have anosmia (lose their sense of smell), for instance through smoking, also find it difficult to enjoy food in the same way as they did before. Of course, the smell is also critical in avoiding bad food – the smell of rancid or rotten food is detected by smell receptors long before it’s tasted by taste receptors.
Smell has several little-known cognitive effects beyond enhancing food, too, for instance:
- Creating memories – smells can often summon very strong memories or a sense of Déjà vu.
- Trigger emotions – due to the way smell ‘signals’ directly impact the limbic system.
- Act as an indicator of smell disorder- anosmia or smell loss or is often one of the first signals of a long-term cognitive condition.
Science shows just how powerful sense of smell is. Lovers of candles know that all too well – finding the right candle is like finding the right perfume, an intensely personal process that often requires a process of elimination. But, interestingly, understanding how candles create smells can help the shopping process.
Candles for the olfactory senses
Scented candles are the obvious option for anyone looking for a product that brings something different to their home, but it’s a good idea to start with the unscented variety. Even basic and unscented tea lights provide a distinct smell to the home resulting from their production. Consider first the paraffin wax candle – the most common type available.
When a candle is lit, some simple chemical and physical reactions occur. The heat and contact of the flame melt the wax below, releasing gases, water vapor, and organic compounds. Even in an unscented variety, that has an impact on our olfactory senses, and even the space around us.
The smell of gentle burning – when controlled, at least – provides relaxation and a sense of calm, and that can help to inspire concentration and focus. That scent can change depending on the wax base of the candle. Paraffin wax is the most easily recognized, but beeswax, plant waxes such as soya, and crystalline wax can all provide their own scent that imparts their own unique variation. There’s a clear chemical reaction taking place that then provides an olfactory response. What’s becoming better understood is how that generates cognitive benefits, such as concentration and focus.
The best way to understand the exact cognitive benefits of candles is to think about how open fire benefits the brain. In a review of one scientific study, The Scotsman highlighted how a campfire triggers a specific physical phenomenon when it comes to the human beings sitting in front of it. Over time, blood pressure decreases, and that’s not necessarily from the heat. After all, hot temperatures often increase blood pressures, such as with a hot bath.
Instead, a long-term evolutionary response may be at work. Thousands of years ago humans would have lit a fire when they felt safe and secure for the night, or ready to settle down for a few days after hunting and gathering. Over time, a fire was a signal of relaxation, of the confidence that worry can be put aside for a time.
As a result, over thousands of years of smell training, the soft smell of controlled fire and the volatiles in the air likely contributed to a sense of calm. Candles replicate those circumstances but in a small and easily controlled manner. It’s a little beacon of calm and hope that can be placed on a shelf, on a desk while working, or by the side of the sofa during the evening. What’s more, unlike most fires, which simply take on the scent of the materials used to build them, candles boast the use of essential oils in the production of their scent.
Oils and olfactory senses
Most candle enthusiasts enjoy them for the scents that they can pick. Those scents, when picked carefully, can have an overall positive impact on the olfactory senses. A handful of key scents provide the most relaxation, according to scientific studies, with lavender at the helm.
Lavender is a bit of wonder when it comes to plants. An important study published by Hindawi in the National Institute of Health found that lavender has anxiolytic, mood stabilizer, sedative, analgesic, and neuroprotective properties. That’s a lot of factors, and of most interest are the stabilizing, analgesic, and neuroprotective properties. These show that when inhaled, lavender can provide a zap of concentration to the mind; a relaxing effect that allows it to clear out pain, aches, and worries, and replace it with more clarity.
Another popular option for its sweet yet exciting aroma, lemon has a certain mood-boosting effect according to John Hopkins. The citrusy scent is associated with heightening the olfactory senses, and lemon can be the perfect way to deliver a rapid boost of focus. Just as a citrusy drink can be sudden and almost shocking, giving a little energy boost, inhaling citrus scents can help to sharpen the mind for problem-solving.
A less common scent, and one you might not think to put in a candle, is rosemary. You might associate the herb more with cooking, such as a roast chicken – but the oil can actually have a distinct impact on focus.
A study analyzed by Discover Magazine found that rosemary oil could have a positive impact on the academic performance of children when inhaled, and over a period of time. Imagine the benefit it could have burned away by your desk.
Potential downsides of burning candles
Candles are a chemical product at heart – that’s why getting high-quality and clean variants is really important to make sure that you are not releasing junk into the air at home. However, even the best quality candles have some element of volatile organic compound (VOC) and will result in some form of home air pollution. Studies have estimated the impact of this, however, and found that the level of emissions is very low and not something to be concerned about except in the most extreme situations, or where air ventilation is particularly poor. Concerns are more about the wider sustainability of candle-making but, again, new high-quality types of candles are far more sustainable.
It’s also important to craft the scents of your home, rather than going all-in. Overusing candles and diffusers, and mixing scents, can create unpleasant mixes that aren’t great for your comfort and focus. Instead, focus on being able to identify one or two scents, and keep it simple, rather than muddling up the scent you put out into the home – and, by extension, muddling up that olfactory bulb in your brain, which receives and process information from the olfactory receptor (that bind odor molecule) via olfactory sensory neuron.
Beneficial impacts on olfactory senses
There are potential beneficial factors involved with the VOCs that candles release that could far outstrip their mild deleterious effect, however. A study published in Neurochemistry International found that essential oils, when vaporized at low temperatures – i.e., in candles – have a measurable impact on the smell receptors in the brain. The bioavailability of the essential oils is so high that they can have this impact.
The impact of this is a directly measured anxiolytic – something that actively reduces anxiety. At a time when anxiety is especially high around the world, with stress levels perhaps never higher, this is something that can’t be taken for granted.
The importance of these studies can’t be understated – there is a clear and measurable link between essential oils and reducing anxiety. Candles are the perfect vehicle for that when considering the response of smell receptors produced by that campfire.
Releasing the dopamine
All of this comes together in the final stage of a positive olfactory response – the release of hormones. When it comes to that, there are two big players – dopamine, often called the pleasure hormone, and endorphins, the painkiller hormone. Together they create a sense of achievement, they create a sense of calm, and they reduce the stresses – or pain – of the day.
According to Good Therapy, essential oils fill this role perfectly, and they can be brought into any person’s wellbeing regime to fulfill that need. A slight bump to the cognitive system to help drive forward focus and determination is something everyone can use.
Deploying the candle
It may seem that bringing a sense of relaxation and calm to a working area is not the best idea. After all, the focus is something that comes from a need to complete a task, and when you need to feel determined to complete a task, why would you start winding down? The tasks are still there to be done – surely it isn’t time to set up the campfire yet?
On the contrary, putting a sense of calm into the air is actually perfect for focusing. An influential study looking at the cognitive impact of colors confirmed this. While you may expect reds, yellows, and oranges – the colors of warning, and alert – to inspire a sense of action and determination, the converse was actually true. Cooler colors, such as light blues, palette colors, and whites, generated a much more positive response in the people studied.
Similarly, it’s actually the idea of your head is clear, and of stresses being pushed away that allow greater focus. Being able to turn your attention to the task at hand, and not be distracted by your own stresses and challenges, is the key. Essential oils, when vaporized at a safe temperature, produce the stress and pain-killing hormones that allow you to put everything else aside.
Olfactory senses interactions
In the end, the reaction is quite simple. Waxes and oils burn; they produce a set of complex volatile compounds, gases, and vaporized oils that are then picked up by an olfactory system adept in smell training by thousands of years of evolution; and they let your brain know that it’s OK to relax, that you’re safe and secure, and that you can put your mind to whatever it is that you’d like to focus on. That’s effective, whether you want to get some rest or to really get into a tough bit of work.
Consider that the next time you’re looking to pick up a candle. You can benefit hugely just from a scentless product, as that’ll give you a look into the history of humans and the relaxing atmospheres they cherished. With essential oils, you can rely on lavender, lemon, or rosemary – or any of the compounds closely related to them – in order to provide an extra layer of important olfactory nerve stimulation. Science shows that it’s not just supposition; these chemical compounds are safe, and powerful, and can provide you with a little dose of inspiration that can often be all you need to push your mood through frustration and distraction and into focus and determination. Plus, your home will smell fantastic to boot.