by Shannon Novak
Aromatherapy is a therapeutic method that uses plants, particularly the essential oil of plants, other scented oils, and ointments to promote health benefits. The use of these plant-based materials, especially oil, originates back to the ancient people of Egypt, India, and China approximately around 1800 B.C. These ancient civilizations used aromatic oils to embalm the dead and promote healing in the living by massaging people with specially chosen oils depending on the ailment that needed treatment (Part Two: The History and Use of Aromatherapy). Throughout time and across the globe, aromatherapy has been used to promote countless positive effects in both the living and the dead. For the dead, aromatherapy is used to not only embalm the body and preserve organs, but also to encourage a healthy and fruitful afterlife. Some of the things that aromatherapy promotes in the living include cleansing of the soul, better digestion and circulation, the reduction of depression and anxiety, a strengthened immune system, a sharper mind and senses, and the elimination of toxins in the body (Barrett). One claim of aromatherapy even goes as far as saying that it can reduce travel-induced excitement in dogs (Wells).
Aromatherapy works by having a patient inhale or ingest the “essential oil” of plants or by having these oils massaged into his or her skin. This essential oil refers to the scented parts of a plant that make up the “essence”, “soul”, or “spirit” of the plant, and it is obtained by extracting it from particular plants (Barrett). Aromatherapy as a practice has been popular for centuries in all parts of the world, and it is still believed in and practiced today. In fact, countless businesses exist for the sake of promoting this practice. One major business is Aroma Vera, and they thrive on selling products that facilitate aromatherapy including essential oil diffusers, shampoo, lotions, candles, and so much more (Aroma Vera). The belief in aromatherapy is important because this practice has been commonly used in medicinal settings with the intent of curing diseases. Aromatherapy is an extraordinary belief because it is thought of as a miraculous practice and promises the impossible people. Aside from the claimed benefits of aromatherapy mentioned earlier, some of the more impossible and wilder claims that proponents of this practice have made include the fact that essential oils are “electronegative and electropositive” and therefore have “yin and yang qualities”, essential oils are able to pass through a person’s blood-brain-barrier, and that this practice changes your blood from red to blue, which creates many health benefits in the body (Buchbauer).
Some compelling evidence for belief in this practice is that there is success found in certain situations. Additionally, aromatherapy has been a practice that has been around for centuries. Therefore, some people may have adopted the mindset that since it has been around for so many years that it must be effective. On the other hand, even though aromatherapy has the outward appearance of science, there seems to be little to none peer-reviewed, replicated scientific research done on the effectiveness of the impossible claims that firm aromatherapy believers have made. For example, one study from the journal of Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine finds that aromatherapy has the potential to relieve depressive symptoms, yet does not show actual results themselves (Sánchez-Vidaña). Additionally, some of the claims of aromatherapy, including the fact that it can cleanse your soul, are un-falsifiable.
The main cognitive contribution to this belief system is the placebo effect. Some people really do experience positive effects and have even been “healed” of certain diseases by using this practice. However, the reason for why this may be is that the fragrances, massages, and other methods of the aromatherapy practice make patients more comfortable and relaxed. Additionally, if people are told that the treatment they are receiving will work, they are likely to believe it and fall victim to confirmation bias of whether or not they are experiencing symptoms of their disease anymore. Furthermore, with a lowered stress level about the healing process, confidence in the authority figure that is administering this therapy, and a comfortable environment, the body’s immune system is able to heal itself more quickly and without stress interfering with the process. Therefore, people really might be experiencing positive benefits from aromatherapy, however the reason for their healing is not the therapy itself, but the placebo effect experienced fostered by the relaxing environment this practice creates for people.
Since aromatherapy has been around for centuries, it has become ingrained in certain societies’ structures and medicinal practices. Aromatherapy believers can come from all communities across all walks of life, however those with the most devout belief in aromatherapy are typically from communities that place a large emphasis on “holistic” and “alternative” medicine. These people might also really value and feel connected to Earth and nature. One large reason that these people have such a firm belief in and positive view of aromatherapy is because they think that natural drugs are the only ones in which people can have full confidence that there will be no side effects to be afraid of (Buchbauer). Some social influences that help them sustain their beliefs are the testimonies that people provide about their positive experiences with this practice, the immense industry that has built itself around this practice, and the fact that this practice is an enjoyable experience that can be shared with others.
In conclusion, even though aromatherapy does create a comfortable and relaxing environment for people, it has not been proven to achieve all of the other impossible claims about its positive effects. The placebo effect and confirmation bias are the two biggest contributing cognitive factors that lead to the continued belief in aromatherapy. These two psychological explanations have allowed people to justify the positive effects found when practicing aromatherapy.
Barrett, Stephen. “Aromatherapy: Making Dollars out of Scents.” Quackwatch,
Buchbauer, G., and L. Jirovetz. “Aromatherapy – Use of Fragrances and Essential Oils as
Medicaments.” Wiley Online Library, onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ffj.2730090503/epdf.
Part Two: The History and Use of Aromatherapy.
Sánchez-Vidaña, Dalinda Isabel, et al. “The Effectiveness of Aromatherapy for Depressive
Symptoms: A Systematic Review.” Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine : ECAM, Hindawi Publishing Corporation, 2017, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5241490/.
Wells, Deborah. “Aromatherapy for Travel-Induced Excitement in Dogs.” Shibboleth
Authentication Request, avmajournals-avma-org.proxy.lib.ohio-state.edu/doi/abs/10.2460/javma.229.6.964.