I’m sure many of us recognize that feeling just before an important interview when your palms get sweaty and your stomach becomes home to a kaleidoscope of exceedingly acrobatic butterflies. These unfortunate effects of anxiety appear largely unavoidable and are certainly not often classed as beneficial.
However, scientists from the university of Kiel (Germany) believe that the smell of anxiety may induce feelings of empathy in others. This means that the nerves you feel may actually buy you some sympathy in that feared interview.
The study collected armpit (or to use the more fancy scientific terminology: axillary) sweat samples from a group of people both during exercise (non-anxiety condition) and during a nerve wrecking oral examination (anxiety condition). A second group were then exposed to these odors whilst undergoing an fMRI brain-scan. This allowed the scientists to monitor how these odors influenced their brain activity. Interestingly, although subjects did not consciously recognize a difference between the smells of exercise and anxiety sweat, their brains told a different story!
The smell of anxiety activated a number of brain regions believed to be important for recognizing anxiety in others and converting these observations to feelings of empathy. These regions include the insula and orbitofrontal cortex, precuneus, cingulum and fusiform gyrus, shown below. These regions were not activated to the same degree by the smell of exercise sweat.
This work suggests that our brains can detect the smell of anxiety on others and respond by making us more empathetic towards that individual. However, before you decide to ditch the deodorant, it must be noted that despite these compelling fMRI findings, none of the subjects consciously reported feelings of empathy! This could mean that, although our brains can unconsciously register the smell of anxiety and prime us to fell empathy, further physical stimuli may be required before we can consciously recognize and act on these feelings.
So to answer my question ‘could stress actually help you pass a job interview’: perhaps, but more work needs to be carried out first to find whether these unconscious brain signals will actually translate to conscious feelings of empathy in such a situation.
Post by: Sarah Fox
The full paper can be accessed free of charge here: