The smell of anxiety induces empathy beneath the threshold of consciousness. - GreenMedInfo Summary
Induction of empathy by the smell of anxiety.
PLoS One. 2009;4(6):e5987. Epub 2009 Jun 24. PMID: 19551135
Center of Integrative Psychiatry, University of Kiel, Kiel, Germany.
The communication of stress/anxiety between conspecifics through chemosensory signals has been documented in many vertebrates and invertebrates. Here, we investigate how chemosensory anxiety signals conveyed by the sweat of humans (N = 49) awaiting an academic examination are processed by the human brain, as compared to chemosensory control signals obtained from the same sweat donors in a sport condition. The chemosensory stimuli were pooled according to the donation condition and administered to 28 participants (14 males) synchronously to breathing via an olfactometer. The stimuli were perceived with a low intensity and accordingly only about half of the odor presentations were detected by the participants. The fMRI results (event-related design) show that chemosensory anxiety signals activate brain areas involved in the processing of social emotional stimuli (fusiform gyrus), and in the regulation of empathic feelings (insula, precuneus, cingulate cortex). In addition, neuronal activity within attentional (thalamus, dorsomedial prefrontal cortex) and emotional (cerebellum, vermis) control systems were observed. The chemosensory perception of human anxiety seems to automatically recruit empathy-related resources. Even though the participants could not attentively differentiate the chemosensory stimuli, emotional contagion seems to be effectively mediated by the olfactory system.