Science of Love, Sex, and Babies

Does “stress sweat” make you more compassionate?

Posted in news by jenapincott on August 4, 2009

armpit3Pheromones fascinate me, and not only the ones that mediate sexual attraction.

Several months ago I wrote a post about a study that suggests that airborne chemical signals also mediate stress and fear. Known as alarm pheromones, these chemicals are found in sweat and saliva. In that experiment, sweat from skydivers (collected from pads in their armpits) activated anxiety circuits in the brains of people who sniffed those pads later on. The fascinating theory: Emotions can be communicated by smell. It happens unconsciously.

That was just one study, and naysayers are quick to point out that a solitary experiment doth not prove human pheromones are real. But now there’s further proof.

Researchers at the Universities of Dusseldorf and Kiel in Germany recently published the results of study based on the sweat smells of 49 stressed-out students after a.) taking a final oral exam (stress sweat) and b.) exercising (sport sweat). Sniffing the pads that had been in students’ armpits, volunteers often couldn’t detect an actual odor. Nor could they tell whether they were smelling stress sweat and sport sweat. But it turns out that an area of their brains detected the difference. Only stress sweat — and not sport sweat — triggered brain activity in areas involved in the processing of social emotional stimuli (fusiform gyrus), and empathetic feelings (insula), attention (thalamus).

The implications are fascinating. Is stress contagious? In an emergency situation, it makes sense that we’re “wired” to perceive and respond to the stress of others. An odor that induces attention and anxiety may help a group to focus together or synchronize a fight-or-flight response.

It’s particularly interesting that neural circuits associated with empathy — not just attention — were activated. Are we naturally empathetic creatures? Then again, there’s no proof that the volunteers actually felt more understanding and compassionate when smelling stress sweat even if their brains go through some of the motions. I suspect empathy is context-dependent. Further experiments should look into whether volunteers really are more empathetic (more willing to help a person in distress, for instance) after smelling stress sweat compared to sport sweat. If so, this would be further proof that stress sweat is an alarm pheromone, which, by definition, changes the way we behave after we inhale it.

A thought: Could stress sweat induce compassion in autistic people?

And another thought: If feelings have smells, is happiness also inhalable, communicable?

4 Responses

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  1. Matt said, on August 5, 2009 at 6:05 am

    Interesting although quite indirecte evidence.
    As one of the naysayers i find that there are tons of pheromone studies performed allmost all with no or weak results. I believe we are so fascinated about human pheromones that we WANT them to exist. For every 20 studies it is statistically probable that there will be one with significant results; considering the amount of data tweaking nowadays thats probably more like 1 in 10 🙂

    Here’s an interesting nature opinion peace on pheromones:

  2. Ruby said, on August 8, 2009 at 3:59 pm

    If this is true it would explain something I’ve experienced a few times: crying when someone else is sad.

    For example: I was in class looking at the slides projected in front and I felt like I had to cry, for no reason at all. Then about a minute later the girl sitting next to me left class and when I went to look for her, she was crying.

    I’ve always been very empathic and it works for different emotions: happiness, sadness, …
    And I also smell things better than most people I know. So this would explain my high empathic sensitivity.

  3. Mike Jones said, on February 8, 2010 at 5:33 pm

    Women seem to be more attracted to money and material things. The more money a man has, the better. I was never one to believe the garbage tale of women who fall in love. It seems more probable that you have to buy it.

    Women, as far as I am concerned are materialistic whores. A guy can have one eye on his forehead. But as long as he has tons of money, many women would love to stare at it and have his baby in order to have his money.

  4. Isaiah Mafnas said, on February 18, 2010 at 10:32 am

    Hi, good day.. Your content is extremely striking. I never thought that it was probable to accomplish something like that until after I looked over your content. You certainly offered an excellent insight on exactly how this kind of whole process functions. Ill always return for more information. Keep it up!

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