People Who Smell Badly More Likely to Commit Murder?
On my commute to work each morning along the busy freeways of Southern California, I have the great misfortune of passing through a tiny town with a big amount of livestock. I haven’t actually seen cattle, but I have definitely, without a doubt in my mind, smelled cattle. Each day is a tumultuous battle to remember to press the car’s recycled-air button in advance.
Smell is a chemical sense. In my case, this means that tiny particles of cow patty are traveling through the air and landing on my nasal receptors. I am vividly reminded of this day in and day out. It wasn’t until recently that I became [somewhat] appreciative of this notion, because it turns out that having a good sense of smell is positively correlated with mental health.
Specifically, empirical research has investigated the link between our olfactory system (science-speak for smell … I think of an old factory) and a number of characteristics such as empathy, intelligence, schizophrenia, psychosis, and more.
According to experts in the field, smell operates on a direct highway with the brain’s limbic system, which serves as the nuts-and-bolts for emotional processing. The limbic system won’t exactly make you a sandwich, but it will be heavily involved in how you feel about that sandwich. Meanwhile, those with smell identification problems (e.g., an inability to detect a rose from a restroom) are at greater risk of negative mental and physical health outcomes.
Smell is linked to the mind and body in a complex, bidirectional manner. In one study, researchers presented subjects with pleasant or unpleasant pictures in order to produce a positive or negative emotional state, respectively. Afterwards, the ability to smell a neutral odor was lower, on average, among people in the negative-picture condition. “Inducing a negative emotional state reduces olfactory sensitivity,” the authors claim.
With this newfound knowledge, I can focus on the silver lining of my stinky commute. On days when I forget to hit the recycled air button, I might get upset (those cows impressively smell). This emotional state, in turn, may provide me with a much-needed respite. The same goes for traffic. I hate traffic, but at least the bad mood it puts me in might reduce my sensitivity to foul odor. And if it doesn’t, I hope my sense of smell can protect me from becoming psychotic.