Study Reveals: The Smell of Anxiety Prompts Empathy In Humans

Stress, Brain Wiring, Empathy and Morality

By Sayer Ji

Contributing Writer for Wake Up World

Research indicates there is an olfactory (smell) based, evolutionary mechanism built into the human genome/soul to feel empathy for the anxiety/suffering of others, flying in the face of many popular and not-so-forgiving views about ‘human nature’.

In a fascinating study entitled “Induction of empathy by the smell of anxiety,” published in the journal of the Public Library of Science (PLoS) in 2009, researchers discovered that: “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.”

In other words, smelling chemical signals from the sweat of anxious subjects elicited an empathic response, even when the smell was below the threshold of consciousness in half the subjects.

Empathy, in fact, has concrete and measurable therapeutic effects in others. In 2009, researchers found that empathy displayed by medical practitioners reduced the duration of the common cold in their patients, significantly impacting “subsequent duration and severity of illness … [a result] associated with immune system changes” in the patient. Conversely, a negative and/or indifferent attitude towards the patient has measurable adverse effects, also known as the nocebo effect.

Given that many believe empathy is not “hard-wired” into us, but rather represents a “higher faculty” in constant struggle with our “baser,” fundamentally selfish instincts, this new research is all the more encouraging. Perhaps in light of it, it will be easier for those who do not experience compassion directly or often enough, either on the giving or receiving end, to come to appreciate its essential role in our past, present and future.

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About the author:

Sayer-Ji

Sayer Ji is on the Board of Governors for the National Health Federation and Fearless Parent, Steering Committee Member of the Global GMO Free Coalition (GGFC), a reviewer at the International Journal of Human Nutrition and Functional Medicine, and founder of GreenMedInfo.com – an open access, evidence-based resource supporting natural and integrative modalities.

In 1995 Sayer received a BA degree in Philosophy from Rutgers University, where he studied under the American philosopher Dr. Bruce W. Wilshire, with a focus on the philosophy of science. In 1996, following residency at the Zen Mountain Monastery in upstate New York, he embarked on a 5 year journey of service as a counsellor-teacher and wilderness therapy specialist for various organizations that serve underprivileged and/or adjudicated populations. Since 2003, Sayer has served as a patient advocate and an educator and consultant for the natural health and wellness field.

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