If something smells awful, it’s because it’s disgusting, right? Maybe, but the truth is a little bit more complicated.
A recent study found that our immediate olfactory reactions to stimuli are heavily influenced by the emotional reactions of other people. This suggests that when we smell something bad, we may be picking up on people’s emotions just as much as the scent of the object. Such a conclusion would fit with previous studies which found a strong relationship between our senses and our emotions.
A team of researchers out of the Ruhr-University Bochum in Germany, examined whether exposure to happy and disgusted faces would affect participants’ reactions to various odors. Participants were shown images of either happy, disgusted, or neutral faces before being exposed to various scents.
Perhaps surprisingly, the participants reacted significantly differently depending on which expression they were exposed to. They rated scents more positively after seeing happy faces, while rating them more negatively after seeing disgusted ones. This held over the majority of scents, despite the odors varying drastically from caramel to human sweat. Only when exposed to the smell of feces did emotion fail to have an impact.
When combining these results with fMRI brain scans, the researchers were even able to identify the section of the brain responsible. They highlighted the role of the piriform cortex, in conditioning our response to a scent, even before we actually smell it.
These results may seem shocking. Don’t our senses simply tell us how the world is around us? Our very empirical skills seem challenged if our sense of smell has more to do with expectation than reality!
However, previous research into other senses has repeatedly found that emotions can influence our sensations, whereas sensations can similarly impact our emotions!
One 2011 study found that tired or overburdened participants actually perceived hills as steeper than those who were energetic or unencumbered. Similarly, happy participants considered their food as actually tasting better than sad ones, while fearful individuals ranked noises as louder and cliffs as higher. In each case, the emotions seemed to profoundly shape perceptions.
This relationship between emotions and sensations works the other direction too: many sensations can trigger certain emotions.
For example, our repeated exposures to certain scents can condition us to react in specific ways. This holds when ardent coffee drinkers immediately feel energetic and upbeat when exposed to the smell of coffee. This can happen even before a drop touches their lips.
After we repeatedly experience pleasure and energy from consuming coffee, our brains become accustomed to associating those feelings with the beverage and are then triggered by the smell, taste, or even sight of it! In a similar, though less uplifting fashion, the mere smell of fire can trigger a fear response in many people, even if they are perfectly safe.