Chinese medicine and the sense of smell


As part of my study, since the very beginning of my time at NCNM, I have sought to use my entire body in the learning process.  While I learn quite well from reading, listening to lectures, and writing – I find that sensory input brings the information alive.  This improves my ability to remember, and also seems to increase my facility in using that information in the real world.

As I’ve worked on projects like my new course about Shennong Relational Herb Learning Method, I’ve seen how this is particularly important in learning and using Chinese herbs.  Herbs are physical things, full of life including smells, tastes and textures.  When we reduce them to data points – as is done in so many educational institutions – they die to us.

However, I’ve found it difficult to actually put this into practice.  This is particularly true of using my sense of smell – and I know from my teaching that I’m not the only one!  Students from Western countries, in particular, seem to struggle with the sense of smell… why is that?

In the United States, and I suppose in most Western countries, sensory experiences are controlled.  For the most part they are stifled, except for sight and hearing which are simply overwhelmed.  Actually, thinking about it, we overwhelm all of our senses – limiting what they experience to a set number of approved, mostly synthetic items and then amping those up to the nth degree.  Whether this is all due our relative affluence, our religious heritage, or some scientific sleight of hand, I do not know.

What I do know is that the classics have something to tell us about the importance of the senses, and have an interesting take on how the senses work.

Chinese medicine and the sense of smell

In Chapter 11 of the Neijing suwen, it says:


This has been translated in a couple of different ways.  The basic translation says:

“When the five Qi/odors enter the nose, they are stored in the Heart and Lung.  Heart and Lung disease is detrimental for the nose.”

In his commentary on this line of the text, Maoshing Ni goes on to posit that the five scents are really “the five qi of environmental energy that we breathe in.”  Regardless of the fact that I don’t see this particular statement in the text (thus underscoring my basic problem with Ni’s translation) it is interesting to contemplate.  What is odor?  Certainly it is qi – but beyond that?  In thinking about this, consider the Neijing’s statement that the odors are 藏/cang/stored by the Heart and Lung.  The Lung makes a lot of sense given that the nose is the orifice of the lung in both a Western and Chinese context.  But what does it mean to say that the lung receives and stores these odors?  One could posit that they become part of the qi that then rains down on the body as heavenly restorative water/qi.  Again, I’m not sure this is in the text itself, but it’s an interesting notion to contemplate.

More interesting to me is the relation of odors and the Heart.  What can it mean that the Heart stores odors?  You’ll excuse me if I offer my own simple theories.  As famously studied by Gilles Laurent at Cal Tech, there is a powerful association between scent and human memory.  Nothing brings back a scene or person to the mind like a scent last experienced in that scene or with that person.

When considering this idea, I most naturally think about the smell of my clothing when I come back from my mother’s house on a visit.  I smell her for weeks afterward – and though the smell is created in part from her detergent, there is more to it than that.  The scent is wrapped up in emotion, the scent contains not just detergent fragrances, but her spaghetti sauce aroma, her hair, the smell of Idaho, cold winters, the essence of what comes from her pores as a product of all she eats, drinks… well, you get the idea.  The memories triggered are as complex.

Consider also the devotional aspects of scent – incense of various kinds have been used in religious ceremony and other spiritual activity since time immemorial.  The Catholics still use incense as part of Mass, as do some Episcopalian congregations.  Buddhist and Hindu shrines are nearly always adorned with incense censers.  We can also think about the effects of Moxibustion using artemesia.  While some people hate moxa for its thick smoke and messy nature, I find it to bring an essential element to treatments where it is indicated.  While not explicitly of a spiritual nature, I do believe that there is something of an offering that occurs when using moxa in treatment.

This relationship of memory and spirituality to the sense of smell helps me to link it to the Heart.  While we often talk about the Kidney as being the storehouse of memory in Chinese medicine, from what I’ve read and learned, the type of memory held by the Kidney is more primal, older and is less easily accessed by consciousness.  The heart seems a likely place (especially in its relationship to the Western concept of mind) to store the memories of this life.  The heart’s relationship to shen makes its connection to human spirituality quite clear.

In classical five element acupuncture, the art of smelling is still employed.  The five odors, discussed first in the Neijing, are assessed by the practitioner to help understand the primary pathology of the patient, as well as used as a key in discovering the patient’s landscape tendency (constitutional factor).  This is one of the most difficult diagnostic techniques for Westerners, as I’ve already hinted at.  I find it to be incredibly difficult, personally, particularly given how so many patients cover up their natural odor as a matter of course.

Scent and herbal medicine

Briefly, what is the role of scent in Chinese herbal medicine?  Most would say, “There is no role!”  I disagree.  One of the reasons I am a huge proponent of patients taking home and cooking their own bulk herbs is because of the experience they gain by doing so.  Looking at the herbs, smelling them in their dried state, allowing the smell to permeate their living space, smelling their powerful odors when drinking – all of this, in my opinion, is part of the therapy.

While many patients are unwilling to have this experience, it is one I encourage and have benefited from personally.  The worst case scenario with regards to this would be taking pills of granulated Chinese herbs.  I believe the move in this direction is detrimental, but understand when some patients choose this path.

Further, when we talk about the “flavor” or “taste” of herbs – scent is certainly part of that equation.  And as I’ve discussed many times, engaging this vital aspect of herbal alchemy is in my opinion the key to lasting learning in Chinese herbal medicine.

Fearless smelling

As I’ve said, one of the major ways I seek to increase my prowess in Chinese medicine is to activate all my senses to the greatest degree possible. So, how to proceed with the sense of smell?  My first trick will be simply to allow myself to smell everything, without reservation.  This means making a conscious effort to breathe deeply through my nose at all times.  I will also be going out of my way to smell things that are likely to be interesting or complex.  I will also be practicing this during tea drinking.  The difference in smell between two otherwise similar puerh teas, for example, can be remarkable and really impacts the experience of the tea.  This, of course, brings me around to the importance of smell for TASTE – but perhaps that’s for another article.

Do you have any ideas of how one can integrate the exercise of the sense of smell into daily living?  Willing to offer your thoughts on this or on the role of smell in learning Chinese herbs?  Join us in the comments below.

About Eric Grey

Hi - I'm the founder of this site and the primary master of all functions here. When I'm not writing, you can find me reaching out to the Chinese Medicine community across the web and in my own backyard. I currently teach Chinese herbs at my alma mater, the National College of Natural Medicine. Additionally, I'm the founder of Watershed Wellness, a thriving local clinic in Southeast Portland in Oregon. No matter where I'm working, you'll find my focus on the Classical approach to Chinese medicine laced throughout everything I do.

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