Do our emotions have a smell?
Yes is the simple answer, but perhaps not in the way you might conceptualise smell.
Unlike vision, when our olfactory receptors are not being stimulated the brain is simply not processing. So if emotion does have a smell then we must be able to detect it in some way – the brain just can’t help itself!
Smelling your partners t-shirt soon after they have been watching a scary movie is unlikely to highlight any identifiable fear smell (other than the obvious general body odour or deodorant), however, may give you a reputation of being a bit odd or weird. Seemingly some individuals have decided to risk the strange activity of t-shirt sniffing under the name of research and science. Without repeating what has been written in this well written article about the study, let’s just say that the results are rather interesting. Apparently not only do our emotions definitely have a smell, but they are also contagious. This brings a whole new perspective to the ‘you make me feel’ argument (can anybody make anybody else feel anything?), and also raises some interesting questions about the nature of empathy, transference and countertransference in the therapeutic relationship (and out of it if course). In fact, it seems this new research has, for me, raised many more questions than it has answered.
It has long been said that mental illness has a particular odour. In the 1960’s a small research project was carried out to see if schizophrenia had a distinctive smell. Apparently it did, and both rats and humans were able to identify the odour. However they were not able to identify the chemical makeup of the smell and no further evidence or research has come forward since (1). So does this new research indicate that schizophrenia is potentially catching? Other mental illnesses? Oh no… more questions!
Other new research is also suggesting that states of anxiety can change the way we smell ‘neutral’ odours, changing them to distasteful smells, reinforcing our negative thinking process and heightening our distress even further (2). Putting this, and the contageous emotion research together leads me to confirm a long held belief of mine that same issue therapy groups are not an effective treatment and can potentially reinforce script beliefs about the self. However of course this could work in reverse when one group member starts to change and express joy at their progress.
My own sense of smell had increased in sensitivity over the years. Experiencing so many clients in distress has heightened my awareness of subtle odour changes during a therapy session. However this is not an entirely welcome gift. Fear and shame in particular, are heavy, potent, and pungent odours, and ones that linger long after a client had gone home. As I also have the advantage of working with my husband, we often cross reference our sense of smell by inviting the other into the therapy room following a client session, confirming or gathering new information from odours left behind. This has proved highly beneficial over the years, as we can grow accustomed to a smell if we sit with it long enough, so a fresh nose can reveal further information, alcohol is a good example if this.
So this new research has interested me somewhat, with such questions as ‘do I need to take more notice of the potential effects of my clients emotions? and consequently ‘do I need to care of myself here’?
If emotions are indeed catching then all therapists need to pay attention to themselves following a session. To take time out, perhaps to meditate for a short time and allow the self to become neutral again. We also need to ensure we take holidays and breaks from our profession every now and again. To model and experience how to meet our needs in order to meet the needs of our clients. Perhaps by being more aware of any potential unseen risks to ourselves by being in this line of work, and ensuring we do take care of ourselves, we may notice and even prevent our own burn-out.
I will indeed further explore some of the questions raised in this post, and I invite you to add in your own questions (or perhaps answers), and your own thoughts on both this blog post, and the various research mentioned.
Go forth and be joyful… spread some happiness around 🙂
(1) Source: http://mindhacks.com/2011/09/11/a-whiff-of-madness/ accessed 25.09.2013
(2) Source: http://www.psypost.org/2013/09/a-shot-of-anxiety-and-the-world-stinks-20383 accessed 25.09.2013
All pictures are from iClipart