Is incense a mind-altering substance?

May 29, 2008

A Kashmiri Hindu woman buring inceFayaz Kablinse at Lord Shiva’s wedding anniversary in Srinagar, 6 March 2008/Ask any altar server or visit any busy Chinese temple and you can smell for yourself that incense can be overpowering. But is it a mind-altering substance? A kind of drug that puts the faithful at ease and fosters feeling of peace and togetherness? And if it is, why aren’t more people flocking to services where clouds of incense billow up out of swaying golden thuribles, rise from joss sticks lit by the faithful or fill the air at other religious rituals?

The incense-as-a-drug thesis comes from the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. Their FASEB Journal has published a paper arguing there could be a biological basis for the use of incense because it seems to have the effect of a psychotropic drug that helps relax people.

As the scientists put it after testing this on mice,“incensole acetate (IA), a resin constituent, is a potent TRPV3 agonist that causes anxiolytic-like and antidepressive-like behavioral effects in wild-type (WT) mice with concomitant changes in c-Fos activation in the brain.”

Pope Benedict at Midnight Mass in St Peter’s, 25 Dec 2006/Alessandro BianchiThanks to Meredith Small for translating that on the Live Science website to the more user-friendly statement: “Under the influence of a good snoot full of incense, mice in scary situations, such as being put in a swimming pool, remain calm, anxiety-free.” A component of the resin in question, she explains, is none other than “frankincense (yes, the same stuff brought to baby Jesus by the Three Kings).”

Does this jibe with your experience of incense?

(Hat tip to Salman Hameed at Science and Religion News)

2 comments

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This incense question clearly needs to be investigated further. I recall a BBC programme from many years back which showed an Amercian device consisting of a prie-Dieu, a candle, and an incense burner. Attached to the prie-Dieu was a small, foldable, diptych of stained glass. It was called “instant church”.
I wonder which parts of the brain would light up in the face of that.

It is a scientific fact, known for years, that Frankincense is indeed psychoactive.

It induces a feeling of elevated wellbeing and many a flock of choresters, priests and even worshippers have grown fond of the high that can be acquired when the church is full of incense vapour. It enhances a priests desire for what may seem like etherial amplification of the communion with God through the blood of Christ.

Incense is also deodorising and has some proven anti-microbial properties.

Indeed it was always thought of as cleansing and purifying. This was especially useful in places where the flock had poor personal hygiene, or where disease was rife.

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