Published on January 30th, 2013 | by Brian Gendron
People Who Smell Badly May be 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. To be fair, I haven’t actually seen the cattle, but I have definitely, without a doubt in my mind, smelled them. Each day is a tumultuous battle to remember in advance to press the car’s recycled-air button.
Think back to what you learned in junior-high science class: smell is a chemical sense; in my situation, this means that tiny particles of cow patty are traveling a tremendous distance through the air and landing on my nasal receptors. I am vividly reminded of this every day. It wasn’t until recently, however, that I became [somewhat] appreciative of this notion. As it turns out, having a good sense of smell is linked to lots of positive stuff. Put differently, having a poor sense of smell is linked to lots of bad stuff.
Allow me to be a bit more specific. Much empirical research has investigated the relationship between the olfactory system (science-speak for smell) and a number of factors including empathy, intelligence, schizophrenia, and even psychosis. Now it’s no coincidence that these variables also have correlations among each other; someone low on empathy might also be the type who is more likely to be detached from reality (a common characteristic among psychotics).
So what role does a sense of smell play in all of this? According to experts in the field, smell operates hand in hand with the limbic system. The limbic system is one nuts-and-bolts part of the brain that processes emotion—it won’t make you a sandwich, but it will be heavily involved in processing how you feel about that sandwich. People with smell identification problems (e.g., an inability to distinguish a rose from a restroom) are more likely to have negative symptoms like those mentioned above, in part, due to a subdued level of emotional processing.
Moreover, smell is related to both the mind and body in a complex, bidirectional manner. In one study, researchers presented subjects with either 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-stimuli condition. The authors claim, “Inducing a negative emotional state reduces olfactory sensitivity.”
Bear in mind, this grossly oversimplifies an intricate process. Nevertheless, I’m focusing on the silver lining when it comes to my stinky commute. On days when I forget to hit that air-recycling button, I might get upset (those cows seriously 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’ll just stick to the notion that my superior sense of smell might protect me from becoming a psychotic schizophrenic.