We all feel great when we smell flowers in the spring. But is smell linked to emotions? Let’s check some studies on smell and emotions and why they are important in helping depressed people.
The studies on smell and emotions
Researchers at Northwestern University have been conducting studies on the sense of smell to determine how it relates to mental disorders and basic human instincts. Their research has recently been reported in the journal Science and has backed up evidence that smell is linked to emotions, to keep us out of harm’s way and even further explain disorders such as post-traumatic stress syndrome.
The researchers at Northwestern came to these findings by giving 12 healthy young adult volunteers electric shocks while they sniffed different odors. These odors were significantly different from ones that the average person would smell in everyday life. These smells were a mix of laboratory chemicals.
Two of the bottles contained the same substance. The third was a mirror image that was indistinguishable. The volunteers correctly guessed the odd odor one-third of the time. Then they were given small electric shocks while they smelled the odd chemical and could then select the odd odor 70 percent of the time.
MRI scans confirmed that the improvement in their guessing was attributed to how the volunteers’ olfactory senses changed their storage of the odor information once the negative shocks were administered.
Best known studies on smell and emotions
A smell can trigger old memories.
It is well established that different scents can trigger old memories, both positive and negative. These memories are especially significant and personal to individuals. It is what helps humans pick out dangerous scents and respond to them, such as smoke from a fire.
However, the brain is unable to distinguish between similar odors that might not be as dangerous, such as smoke from a fire contained in a fireplace versus a house fire. This is what causes anxiety disorders to develop, causing a person’s fight-or-flight response to overreact. However, more research is needed before this theory can be confirmed.
If confirmed, the disorders that are affected by the sense of smell, such as post traumatic stress disorder and depression, can be better understood. Previous studies have been conducted to measure brain responses to the other senses, including sight and hearing with images and words, and they have found that people respond to these images differently than smell.
German studies on smell and emotions.
A similar but different study was conducted by Dr. Bettina Pause at the Christian-Albrechts-University of Kiel in Germany.
They studied 25 depressed volunteers versus 25 healthy volunteers on how their sense of smell responded to emotional stimuli compared to their sense of sight. Afterwards, 15 of the depressed patients who had been treated for their condition, were re-examined after their recovery to see if their responses had changed.
The participants watched a slide show of neutral colors while inhaling various smells ranging from that of roses to rotten butter. Their response to these stimuli was measured by electrodes placed on their heads to track their brain activity.
They found that the depressed patients were less responsive to the smells and visuals than the healthy participants, though the information was processed differently. Those patients who were treated and retested showed the same response as the healthy patients.
Why are the studies of smell and emotions so important?
The differences in processing the sense of smell in depressed patients have been pinpointed to the main olfactory bulb, located below the orbital frontal cortex in the brain. This pea-sized piece of the brain is said to be responsible for the olfactory triggers that depressed people face. If confirmed, it will make the sense of smell one of the most important senses in the human body.
Is smell linked to emotions? Its too early to tell, because the studies on smell and emotions werent fully able to confirm that. But if you feel better with the scent of amazing flowers, we would suggest smelling them more often. Most of the time, it will give you a better feeling afterwards.
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