These results are not to be sniffed at

If you think that emotions can be contagious, you’d be right. It’s well established that feelings of happiness, for example, transfer between individuals through mimicry of facial expressions.

But a new piece of research suggests this is not the only way we influence each others’ emotional states. It would appear that feelings can also be spread by chemical means – specifically via the novel route of underarm sweat!

Researchers from the faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences at Utrecht University recruited 12 men to provide sweat samples. These intrepid fellows attended the lab, rinsed and dried their armpits and then submitted to having pads attached under each armpit. They were then asked to watch videos designed to induce particular emotional states – fear, happiness and neutrality were tested. Following the viewing, the sweat pads were removed and stored in vials.

The ‘sniffers’ who were recruited to the second half of the study were 36 women. The researchers noted that women were used because the feminine sense of smell is known to be more acute than the masculine, and also because women are more sensitive to emotional triggers than men.

These (arguably more intrepid) subjects were then comfortably seated and asked to place their chins on a chin rest. The sweat samples harvested in the first half of the study were then placed under their noses in a holder attached to the chin rest. Fear, happiness and neutral samples were then presented to them with a five minute break in between.

Facial expression data revealed that women exposed to the ‘fear’ sweat exhibited greater activity in the medial frontalis muscle, a common feature of fear reactions. Those exposed to the ‘happy’ sweat showed facial activity of a type related to the ‘Duchenne’ smile, which is a common feature of happy reactions. The ‘neutral’ sweat failed to impact on facial muscle activity.

These results, while in need of further testing, seem to point to the existence of some kind of  ‘chemosignals’, which are capable of communicating emotional states between individuals. Psychological scientist, Gun Semin, a senior researcher on the project said of the findings:

“Our study shows that being exposed to sweat produced under happiness induces a simulacrum of happiness in receivers, and induces a contagion of the emotional state. This suggests that somebody who is happy will infuse others in their vicinity with happiness.”

So there you have it – the word is out and the gauntlet is laid down. If you’re a happy therapist (is there any other kind?) will you take the happy sweat challenge and ‘hold’ the deodorant, just for a day, to give unhappy patients a break?

I’m kidding of course, but what this study does point to is something that we probably already know – that emotional states are infectious. How we are inevitably affects those around us. What it gives us is a possible mechanism for how the effect may be mediated. But arguably, because it relates to the invisible and mysterious communication that happens between human beings, it is probably much more complex than can ever be fully understood or proven empirically.

Do you have any thoughts on this topic? Have you observed the contagion of emotional states? How do you approach the challenge of emotional containment within the counselling environment? As ever, your thoughts appreciated.

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Written by Jacqui Hogan