Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Intuition or a sense of Smell?

I've long been fascinated by the idea that those feelings often attributed to 'intuition' or 'following your gut' might occur physiologically in the form of odor cues that we don't consciously register.

Intuition or Olfactuation? (source)
An example of this might me when you can just 'tell something is wrong' in a situation and decide to leave, and later found out that something bad happened later that evening. These sorts of stories are often used as evidence that people have psychic powers of some kind, and are equally often dismissed as just a coincidence.

But another possibility is that humans communicate through scents more than we realize. Maybe you could actually 'smell something is wrong' rather than supernaturally 'tell something is wrong' in the above hypothetical situation.

Researchers in the Netherlands tested whether the feelings of 'disgust' and 'fear' could be communicated through smell. They had guys watch scary parts of horror movies or disgusting graphic parts of MTV's Jackass while wearing 'sweat pads' in their armpits.

Who knew this would contribute to SCIENCE?

They then had female volunteers smell the sweat pads and measured their facial motions to see if the expressions they made were more like fear or disgust.

Importantly the protocol was double-blind, so neither the experimenters handing out the sweat pad vials, nor the participants had any idea what 'emotion' was sweated into those pads.

And they found what they thought they would find: the 'fear muscles' (Medial Frontalis) were most active for the women smelling the sweat of the horror-watching men, and the 'disgust muscles' (Levator Labii) were most active for the women smelling the sweat of the Jackass-watching men. In the authors words (stats taken out for readability):
"Moreover, fear chemosignals generated an expression of fear and not disgust, disgust chemosignals induced a facial configuration of disgust rather than fear, and neither fear, nor disgust, were evoked in the control condition" de Groot et al. (2012)
So at very very close range (like nose in armpit), it seems that emotional signals can be transmitted through scent.
The smell of fear (source)

A quick side note: the scent in this study was created by men and smelled by women. I wonder if this specific gender combination is necessary for the scent-based communication. You would think men smelling men and women smelling women would have the same effect, but they did not investigate other combinations.

If you learn anything from this, let it be to not go see a disgusting movie on a first date, you might end up repulsing each other with your 'disgust sweat' later.

© TheCellularScale
de Groot JH, Smeets MA, Kaldewaij A, Duijndam MJ, & Semin GR (2012). Chemosignals communicate human emotions. Psychological science, 23 (11), 1417-24 PMID: 23019141

1 comment:

  1. This is such a great resource that you are providing and you give it away for free.INTUITION