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Gayil Nalls, Ph.D.
Gayil Nalls Ph.D.


Smelling Nature from plant-derived smoke

I cannot see what flowers are at my feet, Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs, But, in embalmed darkness, guess each sweet.—John Keats

The role that smells play in the quality, wellbeing, and functionality of our lives can’t be underestimated. In nature, inhaled volatile molecules in the air not only stimulate an anatomical response and the experience of perception; the aromatic compounds alter mood, psychology and cognitive function. They have properties that heal. The experience in nature is like what English poet and classical scholar, Thomas Gray (1746-1771) called, “The breezy call of incense-breathing Morn.”

But how to make these precious odors, the sustenance of happiness and wellbeing, last and be available for use on call?

In all parts of the world, our early ancestors used plant-derived smoke in ritual, religion and healing. They gathered the wood, roots, resin and berries directly from hundreds of plant species and used them to connect with the quiet, yet powerful, language of nature. For centuries, we humans have followed the smell of incense into the chambers of our inner realms, to worlds beyond the senses. All cultures seem to believe that the use of incense not only provides a rare sensory pleasure, but that the internalized experience of the aromatic compounds strengthens self-awareness, and in this way, increases wisdom.

Incense plants have been selected for their smell and color of the smoke, for their healing qualities in traditional medicine, for hygiene, as an insecticide, and as a timekeeper. In addition, many incense plants have been used for their qualities as hallucinogens. For example, the psychoactivity of Boswellia resin (including frankincense and olibanum) has been recognized for centuries, as it has been known to bring about experiences of spiritual exaltation in cultural and religious ceremonies. Research on the plant has shown that incensole acetate (IA), a constituent of Boswellia resin, brings about a anti-depressive-like behavior by activating TRPV3 ion channels in the brain. The people of Namibia burn an incense made of the fragrant resin, Commiphora Multijuga, which is also from the family burseraceae, and too, has hallucinogenic qualities.

Science has also confirmed that many other incense ingredients enhance cortical activity.Today, Native Americans still burn sage to purify the air and promote mental clarity. People in Bhutan and Mongolia still use Juniper for purification ceremonies, it is also used in the Himalayas and North Pakistan, and in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan where it is called Archa, it is sometimes used to treat the respiratory system. Frankincense is still used in Yemen, Somalia, and Egypt as well as the Roman Catholic Church. Resinous aromatic substances such as Frankincense are mixed with dry materials such as wood and burned.

The universal appeal of incense is undeniable. In Bahrain, Kuwait, Sudan, and Indonesia Sandalwood continues to be the traditional incense despite the tree’s endangered status. Frankincense and many other resin-producing trees are also endangered because of over-exploitation. In Malawi, Cedar is used, and in French Guiana, Angelica Bark is often burned. In Senegal, they burn the root of a plant called Gowe (Cyperus articulatus). It is most often picked by women for use in the home, because it is believed to be an aphrodisiac. The Japanese have a long history of using raw woods for incense contemplation. It is considered a high art, practiced as a refined sensory experience in a ceremony called Kodo.

Gale Largey and Rod Watson say in their essay, “The Sociology of Odors,” that “Religious groups have traditionally used incense to create an ‘odor of sanctity,’ an atmosphere of ‘sacredness’ among the followers. It is burned so that the group may share a common experience.” Buddhism’s Agarwood, Clove and Sandalwood are associated in early texts and are used together in various proportions today; The Vatican City says that Balsam is the primary ingredient of the Papal incense.

In Ireland, peat or turf (which consists of leaves, vegetation, water, and wood compressed into the earth), long used as fuel, has become a significant scent. While still in use as fuel, it is also burned as a nostalgic incense.

These organic scents of nature cannot be substituted with the synthetic incense that is popularly available. Commercially manufactured incense consists of only 20% raw natural materials combined with 35% “fragrance materials”, which means, as in perfume, it is synthetic and there is no way of knowing the toxicity levels of the chemicals used. The remaining mass of the incense stick is comprised of adhesive material, and the stick itself (45%). The harmful health effects of these products have been well-documented, and include respiratory disease and cancer.

Should you wish to continue the long-established custom of cultivating a deeper awareness of the pleasure and benefits of nature, some plants, herbs, and natural woods common in the U.S., such as cedar, pine, and cypress can be burned in a censer. The emotive poetry of nature is there to be sensed.


Drobnick, Jim, ed. The Smell Culture Reader. Oxford: Berg. 2006.

Iijima M, Osawa M, Nishitani N, Iwata M. “Effects of Incense on Brain Function: Evaluation Using Electroencephalograms and Event-Related Potentials,” Neuropsychobiology 2009.

Moussaieff, A., et. al.“Incensole acetate, an incense component, elicits psychoactivity by activating TRPV3 channels in the brain,” The FASEB Journal, August 2008 Vol. 22 No. 8.

Nalls, G. “World Sensorium: The Theory, Practice and Significance of The World Social Olfactory Sculpture” London: University of East London 2007.

Ta-Chang Lin, et. al.“Incense smoke: clinical, structural and molecular effects on airway disease,” Clinical and Molecular Allergy, 2008, Vol. 6 No.3.

About the Author
Gayil Nalls, Ph.D.

Gayil Nalls, Ph.D., is an interdisciplinary artist based in New York.

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