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Scents and emotions linked by learning, Brown study shows

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- Whether emotional responses to scent are a product of nature or nurture is matter of scientific debate. But a Brown University study, published in the current issue of the International Journal of Comparative Psychology, comes down on the nurturing side.

In an experiment that involved computer games and custom-made scents, researchers found that responses to new odors depended on emotions experienced while the new odor was present. If participants had a good time playing the game, they were more likely to report liking the odor they smelled. If they had an unpleasant experience, they were more likely to dislike the scent.

"As humans, we're not immediately predisposed to respond to a scent and believe that it is good or bad," said Rachel Herz, a visiting assistant professor of psychology at Brown and the lead scientist of the study. "When we like or don't like a smell, that is learned."

Herz conducted two experiments to test her theory of olfaction. The first included 30 female participants. All were asked to smell five scents, infused in cotton in glass jars, and rate them on a 9-point scale for pleasantness, familiarity and intensity. Most odors were familiar and pleasant rose, vanilla, lemon and peppermint. But one was new: a unique mix of odors that included dirt, rain and hot buttered popcorn. The result was a sweet, dank, slightly unpleasant scent.

Participants were randomly assigned into groups. The experimental group entered a room where the new scent was dispersed in the air by a hidden machine. Then they played a card game on a computer. The game was rigged for fun, using humorous sound effects and smiling faces. This same group, in a later session, was shown a compilation of scenes from the comedy "Something About Mary." Again, the strange scent was gently piped into the room.

Three control groups were used. The first group also played the game and watched the film, but no smell was present. The sec
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Contact: Wendy Lawton
Wendy_Lawton@brown.edu
401-863-2476
Brown University
5-Jan-2005


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