Behold, an emotional meter based on the air we breathe
Social media does not have a nose, and that may be a big problem.
I am not being symbolic or cute. I meant a literal nose – that very organ that many in our Kingdom (our biological Kingdom, Animalia) have relied on for cues for danger and pleasure, and for signaling a range of salient emotions that make our lives worth all those calories and the time nature spent on it.
We humans mainly give credit to our noses for the most obvious living essentials: breathing and smelling (especially food). We have not generally applauded our noses for responsibilities beyond inhaling, exhaling, and sniffing stuff at the dining table. Oh, but maybe we have given it a major role in the way it plays a part on how our faces are perceived to be beautiful – so much so that medical science devised a special category for its rearrangement (rhinoplasty) so you can align it according to your heart's desired configuration and location.
Nanette Inventor did a hilarious spiel on the 4 kinds of Filipino noses in her performance at Pinoy Playlist 2018, including the kind of Pinoy nose which she said was so split into East and West that the nostrils were not on speaking terms. But beyond the need to breathe in oxygen, get rid of other gases we do not need, and sniff aromas that warn us or fill us, we are largely unaware that we humans emit chemicals in the air based on our emotions. Though they are not as identifiably aromatic as the things that smell disgusting or pleasurable, these chemicals spewed by our own emotions are part of the air we all breathe.
Scientists have been sniffing the trail of the science behind the smell of human emotions. Knowing that many mammals rely on their noses for their survival, there is good reason to believe humans do too.
Couples can differentiate between each other's neutral odors and emotional states based on sweat better than they could smelling the sweat of strangers. While the study then showed they could not identify the particular emotion from a particular odor, it proved that emotions can fill the air too.
In another 2012 study, a study was able to show that we can smell fear and disgust. They had women smell the shirts of men who were previously made to watch scary and disgusting movies. When we feel something, we emit chemicals through our breath and skin. These go to the air and stick to our clothes. Sure enough, the women who smelled the said male garments showed facial expressions of fear and disgust that matched the men's shirts that they smelled. The women were unaware of this, as it was their expressions that were recorded and not their own verbal or written interpretation of the smells. Even more, the women in the study were made to do a visual task which showed that the way they did the visual task reflected the way they interpreted the smell as being disgusting or fearful.
This is evidence that we humans can smell fear from each other even if we are unaware of it. This could explain how a group of people, in a threatening situation, can reinforce each other's fears even more. This can be useful if there is real danger happening, like an accident or disaster. But when you have someone in the room who is doing a good job at fearmongering through the pulpit or podium, then it becomes ugly. Knowing now that fear literally becomes part of the air we breathe, people in the room who get roused with fear transmit this to others, who in turn, could also emit the same chemo-signals. Then we end up with a room full of people who are afraid, and therefore, defensive, thereby protecting at all costs only themselves against a threat that does not exist.
But it turns out that fear is not the only thing humans can smell. We can also smell happiness. A 2015 study investigated this, and they found that the substances collected in the garments of those who experienced positive emotions also produced positive facial expressions to those who smelled them. Indeed, we can "infect" someone with happiness not only with what we say or do, but also with the chemo-signals that we naturally emit when we are happy. We affect each other's moods, and therefore the quality of each other's days and nights, in ways we are mostly oblivious of.
But wait, there's more! Knowing that the air is filled with human emotions, scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry looked to see what is that particular chemical in the air that could be a measure of the tension that we humans feel. The recent study did this by finding out what substances fill the air when humans (13,000) watch different kinds of movies (11) with different classifications. Then they measured the amount of these substances and matched it with the kind of ratings that these movies have been given. They found one particular substance to be predictive of the rating and this was isoprene. The levels of this substance found in the air matched the age appropriateness of films that were shown during the experiment.
Isoprene is apparently something our muscles produce – the more tense and nervous we feel, the more isoprene our muscles produce and emit through our skin. We humans are generally not aware of how much we squirm and tense up in threatening situations, even if the situation is only imaginary as in a movie. Other animals react only to real things. Humans react not only to imaginary things; they could also agree to react to imaginary things together as in a movie house or in front of Netflix.
Isoprene may soon mean we no longer have to rely on the subjective and maybe sometimes political opinions of people who are tasked to rate films in terms of their suitability to various age groups. If more evidence points to these, we no longer need to rely on self-reported mood meters alone. We could have independent measures of the air that could tell us how a group really feels amid a film, an announcement, a speech, or an event.
This is why I think that until social media develops a reliable nose, it should not be trusted to capture the range of human emotions that we all naturally navigate when we encounter each other face to face, even without being aware of it. What if there is a chemo-signal we emit when we lie? Or when we are bare-faced, being honest or clueless? Or when we make things up to cause a stir and benefit only our own purposes? We miss all these signals when we only rely on the language, visual, and auditory cues of social media.
Bare truths that could lead us to our truer selves have apparently been marching right under our noses. With this science, essential oils have suddenly taken on new meaning. – Rappler.com
Maria Isabel Garcia is a science writer. She has written two books, "Science Solitaire" and "Twenty One Grams of Spirit and Seven Ounces of Desire." You can reach her at email@example.com.