It’s a question spa therapists receive everyday, and something that is difficult to answer with just one sentence. The Lush Spa Experiment video shows exactly how a treatment can impact your mind and body - but what does the data mean? Four leading experts on sense psychology, and neurology, explain how touch, taste, smell, sight and sound can affect your brain and mood, giving you the definitive answer on how and why a Lush spa treatment is more than a massage.
A truly multi-sensory experience
When you enter a Lush Spa you enter a realm of peace and transience. Just metres away from the hustle and bustle of urban life, a 1940s country kitchen awaits ready to offer you a well-deserved dose of calm.
Spa treatment developer Hannah Lammiman explains: “It’s not just the massage that creates these experiences, it is the whole environment. It feels warm and cosy. There’s reclaimed furniture, sofas, old books, and plenty of tea!”
“It is more of an experience than going to a traditional spa, it’s not white walls, white slippers, white robes - it’s more like coming home. You come in and escape life. It is escapism, that’s what Lush Spa is.”
From the lightly flavoured water you’re offered during your consultation, the evocative scents of essential oils, the music that’s carefully composed to complement each treatment, to the ambient lighting, and the friendly spa therapist who allows you to truly relax, every sense is indulged from the moment you enter a Lush Spa.
Although we often don’t take much notice of them, our senses have a grip on us like nothing else - they’re what we use to understand the world. But why can a spa treatment strike such an emotional chord within us?
Touch is often forgotten when it comes to discussing the senses, and is in many ways considered the functional sense - the one we use to get things done. But touch has a huge role in human social and emotional relationships, so much so that it is vital to the development of babies and children.
Neurobiologist and author of Touch: The Science of Hand, Heart and Mind, Professor David Linden, explains: “Social touch is enormously important. I think of it as it as social glue. It is our best way of communicating trust and is important in all kinds of contexts - with parents and children, lovers, even with co-workers.
“Generally we know that social touch, when it is appropriate, fosters emotions of gratitude and compassion and instills team spirit.”
But what does this have to do with massage? The answer. Hormones. Those feelings of trust and security we feel when touched even for a second, cause our brain to release oxytocin - otherwise known as the trust hormone. It has been proven that an increase in oxytocin reduces levels of another hormone - cortisol - which is responsible for stress. This chain reaction of sorts create that sense of security and pleasure we associate with a massage.
Music is an integral element of the Lush Spa experience, and each of the 11 unique treatments has a bespoke soundtrack designed to evoke certain emotions and memories, whether that be to instil confidence, to indulge in nostalgia or to help you appreciate the beauty of the natural world.
Dr. Liila Taruffi, an expert in the psychology and neuroscience of music, explains the power it has to change our mood.
She says: “Music is one of the most powerful means to evoke very intense and profound emotional experiences, ranging from basic or everyday emotions like happiness or fear, to more complex or aesthetic emotions such as awe or transcendence.
“Music evokes emotions through several different psychological mechanisms. These include emotional contagion in which a listener perceives the emotional tone of the music and copies it internally; through visual imagery where the music evokes images with emotional qualities like a natural landscape emanating peacefulness; through episodic memory where music evokes a memory of a particular event in the listener's life; and through musical expectancy in which the listener's expectations of a piece are confirmed and pleasure is experienced as a result.”
Music has been proven to reduce levels of stress, and Liila adds that the specific acoustical features of music can trigger responses in the brain that regulate heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature, skin conductance, and muscle tension - all things that are linked to relaxation and counteracting stress, making music and massage a perfect pair.
People are more familiar with the use of smell to affect mood and emotions because aromatherapy is a popular way of boosting the body and mind.
But what power does the sense of smell truly have to make us feel less stressed?
Professor Tim Jacob, a neurophysiologist at Cardiff University, explains:
“The sense of smell has an amazing ability to affect mood because it is linked to memory. The effects of smell are conditioned through association, so if you pair an experience with a smell a number of times, that smell acquires the ability to induce the feelings and emotions around that experience, and it can have a big impact.”
Basically, those positive emotions you associate with pleasant smells, they’re a result of past experiences. It’s not science, but poet Kipling famously wrote “Smells are surer than sounds or sights to make your heart-strings crack,” and it seems, he’s right.
Tim says: “In the brain you have the primary cortex dealing with smell, and it is right next door to the hippocampus - the area concerned with memory. There are many interconnections between those two regions, so a lot of information flows between them. They are also connected to the emotional centre (the amygdala). This creates the capacity to store the emotional information that is associated with a smell.
“This means you’ve got this ability with the sense of smell to record the emotional state and even physiological state, and even replicate it.”
It makes sense, more than any other sense, smell can transport us to another time and place. One thing that often comes hand in hand with this kind of evocative moment is the closing of the eyes, but why is it that we close our eyes to help place a memory, remember a fact, or simply relax.
A spa treatment begins in a light and bright country kitchen - after all, natural sunlight or bright light is a instant way to boost your mood. But as the treatment takes place you may find yourself closing your eyes to feel the full stress-relieving effects of the experience.
Tim Jacob explains that the reason behind this is very simple. Closing your eyes means less visual information is entering your brain, allowing you to really relax.
He says: “When you close your eyes the brain wave pattern across your visual cortex very dramatically shifts from beta to alpha waves.
“Alpha waves are associated with relaxation in the brain. If you record alpha waves in the brain it means that your level of relaxation is increasing. So, when you close your eyes you reduce the amount of visual information going to the visual cortex, and so you relax and produce alpha waves.”
The final frontier of any Lush Spa treatment involves taste. Whether it’s a specially chosen tea, a delicious biscuity treat, or a sugary cocktail, this final sensory experience completes your journey.
Taste is probably the sense we associate the most with pleasure, and that’s because it is integral to our survival. We like tasty foods and drinks because this is a way of our body encouraging us or teaching us to eat it again. It’s the same reason carbohydrates are so moreish - our body is programmed to want them as they help it to survive.
So far, taste doesn’t scream relaxation. So why is it we might reach for a bar of chocolate when we want to de-stress?
Professor Neil Martin, psychologist and author of The Neuropsychology of Smell and Taste, lead the first study into our relationship with chocolate.
He explains: “In our study, I was interested in discovering how different food aromas affected brain activity. I found that the aroma of chocolate in both my experiments was associated with a significant reduction in a specific EEG (a way of measuring brain activity) frequency. I think this is because chocolate was rated as the most pleasant and the most relaxing odour of the ones I used. It was the first study of the effect of food aroma on the brain in humans.”
He continues: “A later behavioural study, which we've submitted for publication, found that just exposure to the aroma of chocolate made people report less stress, anxiety, tension and fatigue and an increase in life satisfaction.”
A treat for every sense
Lush Spa treatments are designed to pamper and indulge your every need. By taking care of every sense, you are able to really let go of the stresses of everyday life, slow down, and feel the benefits relaxation brings.
To see exactly how a spa massage affects your mind and body, watch The Lush Spa Experiment, a groundbreaking film that turned real bodily data into mesmerising art.