Scientific Buddhist: Why Incense is More Than Just a Pleasant Backdrop to Meditation; Research Reveals Brain Health Benefits
“Many religious traditions have contended that burning incense is good for the soul. Now, biologists have learned that it is good for our brains too.” — Science Daily 
I’m addicted to incense. I use it in the morning. I use it in the evening. I find it triggers something in me, a sense of peace, a sense of coming inside, but also a feeling of connection. Nearly all spiritual paths include incense. Zen Buddhists face the wall, with only incense, and the bell (and occasional whack) for company. Using essential oils, without the incense stick (usually heated in a bowl of water over a candle) can have all the delightful sensations of incense, without the smoke — which can have risks associated with inhaling smoke.
NOTE: Some studies also show that incense smoke indoors can be bad for your lungs. Essential oils heated over a beeswax candle (using an essential oil heater) can have the “brain benefits” without the risk associated with smoke. There are also electric incense burners which have low smoke from natural incense. Incense is not inhaled like a cigarette, and a single stick of low smoke incense with known ingredients may be low risk for those of us in the habit, but dense temple smoke, a room without ventilation, or too much indoor smoke can have risks. Please review this cautionary study>> It is also not wise to burn incense if you have asthma. Another idea is to burn the incense outside, weather permitting.
In temples all over the world incense is even right now wafting heavenward, some believe carrying prayers, and always presented as a heartfelt offering. In Catholic Cathedrals, censors waft. In every Hindu ceremony, temple and shrine, incense is a constant. These are offerings, but Science is now supporting what religious teachers have said for centuries — “Incense is good for the brain.” This evidence also appears to support actual clinical benefit, rather than just placebo-type benefits based on belief or faith.
Science: Supports Benefits of Incense
I recently came across a release from John Hopkins University, that seems to suggest that incense is more than just symbolic in terms of meditation practice. While it is antithetical to Buddhist belief, the scientists, as they usually do, tested on mice, but I’ll leave that for another story — we, at Buddha Weekly are 100 percent against this type of research involving animals. However, we felt the results were important information, even if the ends did not justify the means. Science Daily, who reported on this study, described it this way:
“An international team of scientists, including researchers from Johns Hopkins University and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, describe how burning frankincense (resin from the Boswellia plant) activates poorly understood ion channels in the brain to alleviate anxiety or depression. This suggests that an entirely new class of depression and anxiety drugs might be right under our noses.” 
There are many other studies, notably a study from the University of Florida that shows
“smells inhibit and excite cells in the olfactory area of the brain creating changes in the brain.” 
Another one, a study of 3,000 people at the Research Centre of Chicago “found that if people had the ability to smell fruit many times a day… they ate less and lost weight.”  It’s fairly clear that smells influence mood, emotions and to the brain itself.
The report from John Hopkins adds:
“In spite of information stemming from ancient texts, constituents of Bosweilla had not been investigated for psychoactivity,” said Raphael Mechoulam, one of the research study’s co-authors. “We found that incensole acetate, a Boswellia resin constituent, when tested in mice lowers anxiety and causes antidepressive-like behavior. Apparently, most present day worshipers assume that incense burning has only a symbolic meaning.”
Pleasant Odors Have Antidepressive-like Behaviour
These studies support the notion that the benefits aren’t just psychological. By extension, once can logically deduce (but not prove) that all pleasant odours would have an antidpressive-like behaviour. It’s a reasonable hypothesis, and certainly supported by aroma therapy, and my own experiences. This suggests that centuries of Ayurvedic and natural medicine are likely not wrong when they make fairly safe lists of benefits (clinically unproven, unless stated otherwise) for various situations [cited from OM Times]:
- Lavender, know to relieve stress and relax
- Sandalwood, removes tension, creates awareness
- Cinnamon, known for increasing focus
- Cedar or pine, well known to help with depression and sadness
- Dragon’s blood, soothes GI tract, helps with pain
- Jasmine, balancing hormones, increasing libido
- Amber: boosting immune system (also if worn, rather than burned, the oil is absorbed through skin)
- Frankincense: was the subject of the above cited study, relieves depression; also known to increase creativity
It is fair to say that any pleasant incense will affect mood positively.
Why Incense is Important in Buddhist Practice
Incense is the top of mind offering substance. Nearly all spiritualities use incense as an offering. In Buddhism it is more than just an “offering.” Offerings are a critical daily practice and not because of superstitious reasoning — i.e. my gift will make my deity happy. By honouring the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, we create several positive conditions, supportive of good karma:
- Merit: by making an offering, we create good Karma of giving
- Overcoming selfishness: any giving is good karma because it overcomes our selfish and ego-centric tendencies and because we give away something with generosity.
- Overcoming pride: giving away what is valuable is also a way to overcome pride, especially if the incense is offered with a bow.
No Charcoal Please: Give Me the Stick or Plug it In
Most studies indicate that incense sticks or essential oils are preferred. Burning natural incense on charcoal is hazardous. One solid alternative are electric incense burners, which can burn natural incense and powders with lower smoke and a longer, more pleasant, sustained burn. [For example (see inset), a lotus-designed one here from Mermaid>>]
Putting aside any possible (or imagined) benefits, I do know one thing — incense really changes my mindspace. Altered consciousness? I don’t know. But a meditative state is very quickly realized when I burn a quality, not too smokey incense. (It’s difficult to be mindful when you’re coughing in a too smokey room!). For this reason, I tend to prefer Tibetan (no wood or resins) or Japanese incense sticks without wood cores — or essential oils heated in a bowl over a candle. Of course, there is something hypnotic and wonderful about the coil of smoke that rises from an incense burner.
My Daily Habit: a Stick a Day…
Personal or not, apparently my daily habit is good for me. Gerald Weissmann, M.D., Editor-in-Chief of The FASEB Journal, said, “Studies of how those psychoactive drugs work have helped us understand modern neurobiology. The discovery of how incensole acetate, purified from frankincense, works on specific targets in the brain should also help us understand diseases of the nervous system. This study also provides a biological explanation for millennia-old spiritual practices that have persisted across time, distance, culture, language, and religion–burning incense really does make you feel warm and tingly all over!”
I know, quoting scientific studies isn’t very profound or spiritual. Maybe it’s a cheat, quickly altering our consciousness and giving us a boost in meditation. Maybe it’s a mind game. But it doesn’t matter. I don’t intend to break my addiction any time soon.
NOTE: Some studies also show that incense smoke indoors can be bad for your lungs. Essential oils heated over a candle can have the “brain benefits” without the risk associated with smoke. Incense is not inhaled like a cigarette, and a single stick of low smoke incense with known ingredients may be low risk for those of us in the habit, but dense temple smoke, or too much indoor smoke can have risks. Please review this cautionary study>> It is also not wise to burn incense if you have asthma.
 Science Daily, Burning Incense is Psychoactive
 FASAB: The Journal for the Federation for American Experimental Biology Abstract: “Incensole acetate, an incense component, elicits psychoactivity by activating TRPV3 channels in the brain”
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Author | Buddha Weekly
Josephine Nolan is an editor and contributing feature writer for several online publications, including EDI Weekly and Buddha Weekly.