Frankincense and Mirth
Is that psychoactive smoke wafting through the pews?
Scientific papers aren’t usually tagged with very exciting titles, but recently I came across a real barn burner: Incensole Acetate, an Incense Component, Elicits Psychoactivity by Activating TRPV3 Channels in the Brain.
Reading between the lines of lab-coat lingo, I realized the report was saying that frankincense—the incense traditionally burned in religious ceremonies—can act on the brain to lower anxiety and diminish depression.
Researchers from Johns Hopkins University and Hebrew University administered incensole acetate, a component of frankincense, to lab mice and learned that it lit up areas of their little mouse brains that control emotion, including nerve circuits affecting anxiety and depression.
The findings suggest new avenues for developing medications to treat these conditions, which are the most common causes of psychiatric disability in the U.S.
The prospect of novel treatments for mood disorders is valuable and encouraging. But I was distracted from all of that by the notion that worshippers have, since time immemorial, been subject to subtle medicinal influence.
With frankincense proven to be a psychoactive agent, it’s possible that people have been expressing their faith in rites and rituals while ever-so-slightly under the influence of mind-altering substances.
Frankincense is familiar to Christians as a gift of the Magi, but its smoke wafts all through religious antiquity. Extracted from the resin of Middle Eastern Boswellia trees, the incense was used as a religious offering by tribes and religions in the Middle East and later throughout Europe.
In India it was burned in worship and in China (where one name translates as “calling back the soul fragrance”) in mourning rituals. In the Talmud, a book of Jewish law, frankincense is prescribed in a potion to “benumb the senses” so that condemned prisoners “will not worry.”
Contemporary Christian, Islamic and Jewish ceremonies commonly use the incense in rites of passage such as baptism and ordination. As smoke rises from a thurible swung on chains, the burning resin has an ancient air that connects a congregation with early traditions.
That frankincense has been a staple of religious rituals is not lost on the study’s researchers. “Burning of Boswellia resin … is believed to contribute to the spiritual exaltation associated with such events,” they write in the paper’s introduction.
Their observation that frankincense smoke “augments the euphoric feeling produced during religious functions” is likely to resonate with many among the faithful.
“There was a strong visual and olfactory effect, and I liked being around it,” says Vince Corso, a New Jersey-based priest with a degree in divinity. “I don’t know if it aligned those parts of my brain to the magic and mystery of the experience, but I was entranced by it.”
Sense and memory
Such is the design of ceremony and all its trappings: to hold attention and establish associations.
Incense smoke burns and rises like an intangible spirit. The woody, sweet aroma of frankincense helps create a setting that is at once formal and comfortable—and distinctive enough to be memorable.
Olfactory receptors in the brain lock aromas into memory in the brain’s limbic system, where a scent is stored with associated memories of mood and emotion. Decades later, the mingled memories can instantly be recalled when the smell is detected again.
The phenomenon of aromas triggering memories is familiar to most people, and almost always fantastic in detail. Scientists believe that’s because the brain prioritizes the sense of smell since it was so crucial for the survival of primitive man. Unlike the other four senses, smells are zapped directly to an area deep in the brain. Sensing an aroma like frankincense first encountered long ago can summon up a vivid memory that sight, taste, touch or sound would never have evoked.
Frankincense for the masses?
The reigning class of anti-depressants, known as SSRIs, clear a path to thinking well. SSRI stands for “selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor”; they inhibit the neurotransmitter serotonin from being “taken up” abnormally by certain nerve cells in the brain. With more serotonin available to transmit nerve impulses, the brain can resume functioning in a healthy way.
That’s why depression treatments match medicinal therapy with “talk” therapy; once the SSRI has removed chemical obstacles, a patient can finally start tackling issues without being darkened by pessimism.
This study suggests frankincense may have the potential to impact brain chemistry in a similar fashion, but whether new drugs will be developed that draw from the psychoactive powers of incensole acetate remains to be seen.
For now, could you self-medicate? Skeptics, not to mention competing pharmaceutical interests, will be quick to discredit any substance that hasn’t undergone a battery of controlled trials. But if you care to see if it would lift your mood, it’s not hard to find in organic stores or online.
I picked some up at Whole Foods. The first whiff brought me right back to a service at St. Boniface, my hometown church; I was kind of panicked I would be called on to say a Hail Mary.
So much for instant bliss.
About Rich Maloof
Rich Maloof’s award-winning writing has covered subjects ranging from soda pop to stem cells. He has written for MSN, CNN, MSNBC, Yahoo!, Women’s Health, and various other publications. He is the published author of 12 books to date, including several instructional titles for musicians. He is a regular contributor for Brain & Body.
Rich is currently preparing a book on mortality for St. Martin’s Press with co-author HP Newquist.