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Anxious? You May Sweat But Others Will Empathize

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, July 23, 2009
Updated: Thursday, February 17, 2011
"Smell is a potent wizard that transports you across thousands of miles and all the years you have lived." Helen Keller, American author and educator, who was blind and deaf.

Scientists and poets have long known that our sense of smell has power to unleash memories. Researchers now find even smells that are not consciously identified can inspire empathy.

Bettina Pause and colleagues at the University of Dusseldorf in Germany collected sweat of 49 students facing oral final exams, and from the same students again as they exercised. Another group of students sniffed the sweat samples while having their brains scanned. When the volunteers sniffed the academic stress sweat, their brain lit up in areas that process social and emotional stimuli and regulate feelings of empathy. The findings, published in the June issue of PLoS ONE report that only half of the participants detected any sweat smell, and none could detect the difference between sports sweat and anxiety sweat.

A New Scientist story explains that researchers think anxiety prompts the release of a chemical that bypasses consciousness and triggers similar feelings in the person who smells it. The scent of sweat from a skydiver, for instance, could induce anxiety in a person who smelled it, even unknowingly.

In his engaging book Proust Was a Neuroscientist, Jonah Lehrer writes that 90 percent of what we think is taste is actually based on what we smell. He tells us that when the great French chef Auguste Escoffier, the inventor of veal stock, began the launched the practice of serving food piping hot, our olfactory senses enhanced gustatory delight as the volatile molecules evaporated into the air.

Our sense of taste and smell embody multiple memories. Lehrer quotes Proust:

"When from a long distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broke and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but enduring, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised for a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.

So it is perhaps not surprising an undetected scent can elicit empathy.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  research  science 

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