eople with dementia and their needs
The term ‘dementia’ describes progressive disorders affecting the brain such as Alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia and dementia with Lewy bodies. These conditions present problems with thinking, mood, behavior, and the ability to take part in everyday activity and leisure.
If no suitable activities are provided and people living with dementia have nothing to do, they might become increasingly isolated, frustrated, bored and unhappy. This is reflected in people walking around and searching, or becoming agitated and emotional distressed. The absence of activities also affects their ability to maintain everyday skills such as self-care.
Medication such as neuroleptics and other sedatives are often used to control these problems. Although medication achieves short-term results it frequently causes side effects such as drowsiness, which makes the problem worse as it reduces independence. Given these risks, good clinical practice should first exclude the possibility that these problems have a physical cause (e.g. infection or pain) and engage
in non-pharmacological approaches before considering medication. Stimulation and activity suitable and appropriate for the individual will help keep the person active and included which also helps both to maintain function and cognition, and to manage and moderate mood and behavior. As with medication, activities must be tailored to meet individual needs.
However, choosing the most suitable type of activity for people in the mid to late stages of the disease is challenging. Given those people may not be able to participate in hobbies enjoyed in the past, it may be the sensory side of that activity that needs to be supported.
For example, a woman who enjoyed baking may experience pleasure being able to knead dough and/or to taste the finished product, despite not being able to complete the activity as a whole. Identifying these parts is critical in constructing an activity and an environment that is suitable and desirable for the individual. This form of sensory activity may also provide a level of stimulation, which increases awareness and attention due to the simplicity of the task. Matching the sensory demand of the activity with a well-designed environment will help the person with dementia to take part. For residents with specific medical requirements a relevant health care professional needs to be consulted before following the advice in this guide.
Examples of sensory stimulation for each of the senses applicable in dementia care (the “Sensory Tool Kit”):
- Sight: light, images, color, material of various optical qualities (e.g. shiny, reflective, transparent)
- Touch: materials and objects featuring various surfaces, texture and feel, temperature, breeze, vibration
- Taste: drinks (hot or cold), stimulating food/snacks (e.g. citrus fruits, sherbet or peppermint), textured foods (e.g. popcorn and jelly)
- Smell: aromatherapy scents and smell pots diffuser, lavender bag, everyday items, various material, food, flowers, animals, skin and fur
- Sound: music, sound-scape, environmental themes (birdsong, sea waves), instruments, every day items (cutlery, textiles)
- Movement: different seating position, rocking chair, bean bag, laying down, stimulating head and arm movements
What is multi sensory stimulation?
Everyone needs sensory stimulation in order to comprehend the world around them. The only way we can get information into our brains is through our senses; sight, sound, touch, taste, smell and movement. If we have too much stimulation we can become easily overwhelmed (e.g. being in a noisy, busy shopping center for too long). If we have too little we lose interest in our surroundings and lose the ability to do things (e.g. people with no stimulation will often sleep to pass time and miss out on activity). Today it is recognized that deprivation of sensory stimulation and appropriate activity has a devastating impact on our wellbeing and health.
Older people in particular who are limited in their physical and cognitive abilities, need to be offered and helped to engage in activity that provides multi-sensory stimulation, as they may not be able to access this kind of stimulation by themselves. The right level of sensory stimulation helps to relieve stress and boredom; to engage in activity also involves an act of communication that enhances the feeling of comfort and wellbeing.
Stimulation of the senses includes sight, touch, taste, smell, sound and movement (proprioception – where our body is in space, and vestibular awareness – how fast we are moving and in what direction).
How much stimulation a person can cope with depends on whether they are a sensory seeker or a sensory avoider. A sensory seeker can cope with higher levels of stimulation with multiple stimuli. If they are not getting enough stimulation they may well create their own – for example, dismantling the TV, going into other people’s rooms.
If they are a sensory avoider they may find the environment too stimulating so try and get away from it – for example, trying to leave the building or challenging another resident who is calling out. Therefore a Sensiks Sensory Pod should include a “Sensory Tool Kit” (examples listed in the box on the right) to provide both intense and gentle stimulation.
Benefits Sensiks Sensory Pod
The Sensiks Sensory Pod, also called Multi Sensory Environment (MSE), is a space for enjoying a variety of sensory experiences and where gentle stimulation of the senses (sight, sound, touch, taste, smell and movement) can be provided in a controlled way. Stimulation can be increased or decreased to match the interests and therapeutic needs of the user. Such spaces, and how they are equipped, offer a range of activities that can either be sensory stimulating or calming in their effects.
The concept originated in The Netherlands in the early 1980s. Initially, the MSE was used for leisure activities involving adults with learning disabilities. Nowadays it is also successfully applied in relation to other user groups including people with cognitive and physical impairments such as autism, acquired head injuries, stroke, and those with limitations of movement, vision and/or hearing. The MSE offers the opportunity for an activity that is free from cognitive demands in a space that can be used by care workers as well as family members and informal carers.
The conventional MSE, as provided by industry suppliers, contains a variety of equipment to stimulate the senses such as: bubble columns, solar projector casting themed images, coloured optic fibres (for stimulating sight), CD player/sound system (sound), optic fibres to stroke and plait (touch), aroma distributor (smell), waterbeds and vibrating chairs (movement), equipment featuring switches (interaction).
Although little is actually known about how or why MSEs / Sensiks Sensory Pods work, research studies and anecdotal evidence have shown that people with dementia find them enjoyable and relaxing. After spending time in a Sensiks Sensory Pod, residents in the later stages of dementia show positive changes in mood and behavior, and also an increase in attention to their surroundings. Staff feels that these improvements help with their relationship with the residents and their daily work.
Though it seems that these environments and activities have the potential to improve a person’s abilities and wellbeing, it has also been reported that Sensiks Sensory Pods do not always live up to expectations and staff stop using them.
The reason for this might be that often, when setting the space up, little thought is given to the design itself and how this environment is going to be used. As a consequence, such spaces do not always work for people with dementia and their care workers because aesthetics and functionality of the spaces are not satisfying and appropriate.
The success of these spaces is very much influenced by what staff think the room is for, how it is understood and consequently used by care workers – not just in times of a resident’s distress but also as a means of positively enhancing peoples’ lives. Multi sensory stimulation should not be limited to a particular space, it should be provided throughout the home in common areas (including garden) and also residents’ bedrooms.
First of all, the care home should look like a home and less like an institution. A stimulating but comfortable environment can be created through a considered and appropriate use of color, wall paper, attractive furniture, art work / images, appropriate decoration, sensory corridors, and the introduction of nature through aquarium, pets, water features, plants and small trees.
For people with dementia a sensory stimulating environment may facilitate interaction between them and their career enhancing communication on a verbal and non-verbal level. Increasing sensory awareness also supports information processing and raises awareness of the general environment. Sensory stimulating surroundings help working out where you are by the sensory cues around you, for example: ‘It is steamy, I can smell soap, I could be in a bathroom’ / ‘It is hot, I can smell onions, there are plates and cutlery – it must be lunchtime’).
However, the provision of a generally stimulating and comfortable environment does not necessarily eliminate the potential need for a specific multi sensory space – whether it is a semi-open area or corner embedded in the general living environment or a multi Sensiks Sensory Pod where it is possible to close the door for focused activities and sensory sessions.
Where possible a multi sensory space should always be accessible to residents at any time – whether it is a room (door should be open or unlocked) or a sensory area. This ensures that residents can use the space on their own whenever they want to, giving them choice and control. It also makes for a more cost effective approach, which does not rely on staff having to take the residents to the space. The room/area should be set up in such a way that it is safe for the residents to access if unsupervised. Potentially harmful items or expensive equipment should be stored/locked away or secured in such a way that it cannot be dismantled or broken by the residents. Ideally the room/space should be located near the lounge where care workers can easily support the residents using the multi sensory space.
Exploring the environment will always come with an element of risk. Each sensory experience should be assessed to allow each individual to challenge and explore. This level of risk will
be different for each resident and it is the team’s responsibility to ensure personal autonomy and dignity are maintained whilst high risk exposure is reduced. Using guidelines such as those in the PAL with help reduce risk whilst maintaining an appropriate level of engagement.
Feeling comfortable and safe
The space you want to create should be an environment where residents feel comfortable, safe and secure. It should be an intimate, contained and quiet space with minimized or zero capacity for disturbance or distraction, neither visually nor through loud noise or other people walking in and out. Providing a soft, warm and cozy atmosphere is vital.
Using low-level sensory stimulation will activate the parasympathetic nervous system: inducing a state of calm. This will help the residents to relax and will reduce stress and anxiety, and subsequently enable them to better focus on activities offered.
Meaningful and familiar
Apart from stimulating the senses your Sensiks Sensory Pod / multi sensory space should be equipped and designed in such a way that it can provide familiar, personal and appropriate experiences that are relevant to the resident’s life and stage of dementia. Everyday objects, e.g. set of keys or a little bell, and/ or tailor-made objects, e.g. textile books or sensory cushions, can trigger off memories or start a conversation. The design should create opportunities for exploring and engaging in appropriate activity giving the person a sense of purpose. Making the room feel familiar will help with transition into the room and residents will be more motivated
Multi sensory experience
All the senses need to be addressed! This includes sight, touch, sound, smell, taste and movement. Our study has shown that the visual sense is often overvalued, in some cases even over-stimulated. In contrast, the provision of tactile stimuli is limited as there is not enough variety of material and objects to touch and explore. Similarly there
is often not enough stimulation of hearing, smell and taste. Stimulating the vestibular (moving in space, orientation and balance) and kinesthetic sense (position and movement of arms and legs) is mostly neglected.
A good solution here is to use equipment, items and material that are multi sensory in design. For example, music instruments or scented cushions made from various materials provide a wider opportunity to explore visual, tactile, audio and olfactory (smell) stimulation and encourage movement. Many kinds of food are also multi sensory such as fruits, colorful cake or sorbet providing not just taste but also texture and color.
Combining various stimuli addressing different senses under a particular theme can create meaningful multi sensory and reminiscent experiences. For example a walk on the coast: the sound of waves and seagulls, a breeze, a video showing the sea and the beach, sand and some shells to touch. This can create a virtual environment bringing the experience of the seaside indoors.
This can be considered as part of thermoregulation as well as orientation, in essence another sense. It helps us to orientate to our environment and can stimulate reminiscence, which can lead to increased wellbeing and increased awareness. For example, a warm room with sounds of the seashore might suggest being on holiday.
Auditory stimulation is very effective for mood enhancement, relaxation, and cognition. It includes a wide range of sounds, ranging from natural sound (e.g. birdsong, waterfall, urban environment) to generated sound such as music. Both can be enjoyed life or played back through a sound system.
A multi sensory space should provide both, a good sound system with CD player as well as items that produce life sounds such as musical instruments or water features.
Olfactory stimulation can be facilitated through a wide range of actions and activities. Smell can be actively stimulated through a bespoke smelling session or aromatherapy session, or just be in the background providing a pleasant and fresh atmosphere when entering the sensory space.
The sense of taste is often under-used as a sensory component of a multi sensory experience; however, it is a powerful way of understanding what is happening around us. Taste can provoke memories as well as emotions. Taste is also highly personal so it needs to be ensured that staff has a clear understanding of likes and dislikes of the individual.
Texture is also an element that provokes response. For example, soft creamy textures can be soothing (sucking chocolate).
Residents may also have strong responses to certain textures so, again, care needs to be taken. Examples of different tastes and textures are given below.
Stimulating the sense of taste is not about eating and feeding. The goal is to provide stimulation: small tasters and snacks for comfort and enjoyment to encourage residents to respond and reminisce. Offer something that people would see as a luxury or a treat, not the everyday taste. A sensory session can also be used to encourage residents to have more fluids within this time. Care needs to be taken with participants who have specific dietary needs or swallowing difficulties. A health care professional might need to be consulted for further advice.
Movement (vestibular and kinesthetic sense)
The vestibular sense is the sense that provides us with information about our movement in space. It is responsible for spatial orientation and balance – for creating an awareness of the location of our heads and bodies in relation to the ground. The kinesthetic sense (also called ‘proprioception’) is the sense of the position and movement of our arms and legs in relation to one another. It tells us where our body parts are located at that moment, and how much strength we need to exert when completing various task.
Movement and different body positions address both senses. Moving our bodies can either stimulate or relax. Spinning or random movements tend to be stimulating whereas linear movements are relaxing, for example, we rock a baby to help it sleep but dancing energetically is stimulating.
Stimulation and Relaxation
A Sensiks Sensory Pod should be seen as a sensory toolbox with a number of different items to stimulate the senses at different levels of intensity. For example, bright lights to stimulate and soft low level lighting to relax. The person setting up the room also needs to remember that what relaxes one person may stimulate another. A person who is sensitive to stimulation is likely to respond quicker. By completing an in depth personal life story staff will be aware of what things stimulate or relax each resident.
The selection of each piece of sensory equipment or item should then be based on that person’s interests and needs. Outcomes from each sensory session need to be recorded alongside what has been stimulating or relaxing so that other staff will know which pieces of equipment or item and/or which sensory activity work best at either stimulating or relaxing.
By having a Sensiks Sensory Pod/Space it is possible to create either a relaxing or a stimulating environment. Below are some suggestions of relaxing and stimulating pieces of equipment.
Control and Interaction
Interaction and engagement at the right level for the individual is important as it promotes brain activity and helps the person maintain interaction skills such as learning and communication.
Doing things for you also increases confidence and feelings of self worth. Hence residents using the Sensory Space/Room should be allowed and encouraged to choose sound / music, color and intensity of light, imagery etc. themselves. It is about giving somebody the opportunity and empowerment to choose what to explore and at somebody’s own pace.
Being able to control the stimulation give a sense of mastery over the environment. This facilitates the user to modify the amount and type of stimulation they receive and help prevent them becoming over-stimulated.
The way care workers interact and communicate with the person with dementia is critical in maintaining dignity: if the interaction is appropriate and the piece of equipment is targeted at the right level of ability then dignity is maintained. Focus on what kind of stimulation it provides and reflect on how it might make you feel.
A validation approach can also be used when presenting items or equipment by talking about what that type of stimulation might remind you of. For example, the optic fibre spray is twinkling: it reminds me of Christmas lights, how did you spend Christmas with your family?
Staff needs to be clear about what is to be achieved by the piece of equipment: for example is a nursing chair appropriate for older people? This type of chair providing a linear rocking action (suitable for relaxation) might be considered for the Sensiks Sensory Pod as its design reduces the chance of the individual falling out. However, if it is referred to as the nursing chair this could be perceived as inappropriate.
Apart from the issue surrounding aesthetics and connotation, the usability of sensory equipment and items is of high importance too.
A multi sensory space needs to be set up and designed in such a way that sensory equipment and items to be explored are in easy reach or/and sight for the residents. As many of the residents might be bound to a wheelchair ‘eye level’ for them is lower then for a person walking or standing. For similar reasons a person might not be able to bend down. So items placed on the floor would be out of reach for them.
Also, equipment should be ergonomically designed to suit the abilities of older people with physical limitations and not able to grab and hold things easily anymore. This is particularly important if integrated switches are employed for user control.
Noam Sobel can’t stop watching you sniff your hands. In public, he sees people doing it everywhere. Here a man is leaning on one elbow, his palm covering his nose. Over there someone is playing with her upper lip, her fingers hovering just below her nostrils. Maybe you’re doing it right now.
Don’t be embarrassed. We humans are animals, and a growing body of research suggests that like other animals, we use our sense of smell to gather information about those around us. Sobel, a professor of neurobiology at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, thinks sniffing our hands might be just one way that we sample each other’s odours so that we can learn from them.
Findings from other researchers suggest that a second language, spoken in scent, might be passing (as it were) right under our noses. Body odours are in the background of all our interactions. And the clues about relationships and emotions that we sniff out from these odours might be a crucial element of human society. The bodily smells of our fellow humans help us to recognise our relatives and friends and to bond with our babies. Even wearing a literal blindfold, we can recognise the musty aroma of an elderly person – an odour, by the way, that is not necessarily unpleasant. Meanwhile, the odour of illness can warn us to stay away from a contagious other.
Conventional wisdom holds that humans are not that gifted in the olfactory department. Watching our dogs and cats plant scent markings or sniff the air knowingly, we might feel as though our species is wearing a scent blindfold. Researchers trying to explain human sexual attraction and other interpersonal instincts couldn’t even find human pheromones – special molecules released by one individual and received by another of the same species, causing a specific reaction. Ants use pheromones to communicate and leave trails back to the home base. Boar pheromones, when sprayed into a pig sty, will make females that are in heat assume a mating stance. Yet, perhaps to our advantage in terms of conscious self-control, studies suggest that humans are happily immune. Sure, we can distinguish the smell of someone who has been drinking, or someone who ate garlic or curry recently – but a broad detection of such blatant or toxic odours seems a scant gift compared with species that can smell their way home.
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Still, we do have a sense of smell, and surely it must be for more than just noticing that it’s time to take out the trash. That’s the thought that led Sobel to consider the olfactory significance of the handshake. It’s common in cultures around the world, if not quite universal. Historians might explain the origin of handshaking with a story describing how to show a stranger that you’re not holding a weapon. But Sobel wondered whether there could be a deeper motive, too – something more like a hearty butt-sniff between dogs.
To test the idea, Sobel and his colleagues brought subjects into a room and left them alone while secretly filming them. After a few minutes, an experimenter came in and greeted each subject, either with a handshake or not, then left the room for another few minutes. Even before the team analysed the experimental results, the videos were striking.
‘People are constantly sniffing their own hands,’ Sobel said. Sitting in a room alone, subjects spent 22 per cent of the time with one hand or the other near their nose. We might think of this behaviour as nervous grooming – scratching, biting a nail – but when the researchers measured air flow through the nose on another group of subjects, they showed that people with their hands near their noses were actively sniffing. The paper appeared in 2015 in eLife.
The point of all that sniffing wasn’t clear. After shaking hands with an experimenter of the same sex, subjects more than doubled their smelling of their shaking hand. If the experimenter was of the opposite sex, the researchers saw the same increased interest in the opposite hand, as if people were confirming their own smell. Sobel doesn’t think smell-swapping is the only reason for handshaking, or that handshaking is the only way we do it. But he thinks shaking hands might be part of how we chemically sample our world.
Another way might be through tears. In a 2011 paper in Science, Sobel had women watch sad movie clips and collect their tears in little vials. Male subjects couldn’t smell any difference between sad tears and ordinary saline that had been dribbled down the women’s cheeks. But after sniffing the tears, the men rated photos of other women as less attractive. Their testosterone levels also dropped. Sobel thinks the point of tears – whether a sad adult’s or a hungry infant’s – might be to carry a signal that reduces the others’ aggression. When we lean in for a hug, we get a good dose.
If our infectious neighbour suddenly smells a little grosser, we’ll keep our distance and avoid catching the same thing
Body odours, in fact, appear to serve as an early warning system for essential navigation of the world. Doctors have used patients’ odours for diagnosis, from the fresh-bread smell of typhoid fever to the musty smell of liver failure and the alleged grapey scent of a Pseudomonas infection. New research shows that even untrained humans can sniff out the difference between people who are healthy and those who are sick. To illustrate the point, Mats Olsson, Professor of Clinical Neuroscience at the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden, gave subjects squeeze-bottles to sniff and rate. Inside each bottle were the snipped-out armpit regions of a single T-shirt. Some of the shirts had been worn for several hours by a person whose immune system was artificially ramped up, as if he or she were just getting sick. Other shirts came from a normal, healthy person, and still others were worn by no one at all.
The bottle sniffers rated armpit swatches from immune-activated people as more intense, and less pleasant, than the swatches from healthy people. The people whose immune systems were activated hadn’t sweated any more than usual – rather, something seemed to be qualitatively different about their odours. ‘The exact nature of the cue or signal has yet to be determined,’ Olsson and his co‑authors wrote in a 2014 paper in Psychological Science.
It makes sense that humans might have evolved to sniff out a neighbour who’s getting sick, says Amy Gordon, a doctoral student in Olsson’s lab who also worked on this study. If our infectious neighbour suddenly smells a little grosser, maybe we’ll keep our distance and avoid catching the same thing.
The sense of smell might be most telling within the family group. Back in 1999, Richard Porter, a psychologist at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, reported in Genetica that breastfed babies prefer the scent of their own mother’s breast to other mothers. They also prefer the odour of her armpit. Mothers, too, can recognise the smells of their babies’ heads, or T-shirts they’ve worn.
A possible explanation came from the animal kingdom, where many species recognise the scent of a relative as a way to avoid inbreeding. A highly variable set of genes called the major histocompatibility complex (MHC) helps to create body odours that animals can use to identify each other. Many studies have looked for a similar connection in humans between MHC types and how we choose our mates. In a 2009 review for Psychoneuroendocrinology, the anthropologist Jan Havlíček of Charles University in Prague and the evolutionary psychologist S Craig Roberts of the University of Liverpool concluded that most odour-based studies found that people preferred partners with different MHC types – a hint that we might use body odours to look for genetically dissimilar mates.
Fundamentally, we know how our basic sense of smell works: when someone stops to smell the roses, or sniffs at a questionable jug of milk, odour molecules travel up the nostrils and latch on to receptors. This sends a signal along neurons to the olfactory bulb, which sits on the underside of the brain just behind the bridge of the nose. From there, signals travel deeper into the brain, to areas collectively called the olfactory cortex.
Yet when you catch a waft of another person’s body, something else entirely might happen.
Johan Lundström, a neuroscientist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, is gathering evidence that a whiff of body odour activates a different processing network in your brain than other scents do. In a study published in Cerebral Cortex in 2008, Lundström scanned women’s brain activity while they breathed in body-odour smells. (Women are often the subjects of these studies because they tend to be more sensitive smellers.) The samples came from the women themselves, their very close friends, or strangers; researchers had sewn nursing pads into the armpits of T-shirts and had subjects wear them to bed for a week. There was also a fake body odour, made with cumin oil and anise oil.
Women could pick out both their own odours and their friends’ from the odours of strangers, though they didn’t feel confident about it. While they were breathing in these body odours, scans showed that the standard olfactory cortex regions weren’t lit up. Instead, Lundström saw a pattern of brain activation that included the posterior cingulate cortex, which responds to emotional stimuli, and the angular gyrus, which is involved in constructing an image of ourselves.
In a similar study published in 2009 in Human Brain Mapping, Lundström had women sniff samples from either their female friends or their own sisters. ‘Many subjects expressed frustration with the seemingly impossible task of identifying someone based on their body odour,’ the authors wrote, ‘although they unknowingly were able to perform the task with good accuracy.’ Again, the fake body odour lit up an expected olfactory centre, the orbitofrontal cortex. But the true body odours didn’t activate the olfactory cortex. When women sniffed their sisters’ odours, one of the active brain areas was the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, which seems to help people recognise themselves.
Our body odours might even communicate emotions, such as fear or stress – and those emotions can be contagious. In a 2009 study in Psychological Science, the psychologists Wen Zhou and Denise Chen at Rice University in Texas collected sweat from men who were watching either horror movies or comedies. Women who then sniffed the horror-movie sweat were more likely to judge faces as fearful. In a 2009 study in the International Journal of Psychophysiology by the psychologist Bettina Pause at the University of Dusseldorf and others, students donated sweat while they were either exercising or awaiting a stressful oral exam. People who smelled the stress sweat startled more violently at loud noises, compared with people smelling the exercise sweat. Researchers at the University of Stony Brook in New York studied emotional contagion for a 2009 paper in PLOS ONE by taping sweat pads to the armpits of first-time skydivers on tandem jumps. (To ensure natural samples, the donors weren’t allowed to use deodorant. Pity their jumping partners.)
Emotional contagion is still a new field. It will take more research to confirm that these effects are real and repeatable – and to find out whether positive emotions can spread through smells along with negative ones. Richard Doty, who directs the Smell and Taste Center at the University of Pennsylvania, thinks that the whole idea of body odours carrying signals is unconvincing. He says learned association is a better explanation for the odour connection between mothers and babies. He also points out that brain-imaging studies, such as Lundström’s research into odour processing, can be unreliable.
Yet even if scientists disagree about the nature of body odours – are they molecular signals of mood, status and health, or meaningless scents that we’re adept at learning? – it seems clear that we haven’t given our noses enough credit.
Yet we also crave each other’s odours: the scent of a romantic partner, for example, lingering on a pillow
Even Sobel doesn’t think it would be a good thing if everyone suddenly saw themselves as members of a complex olfactory network, sampling and learning from others’ body odours. The rest of the world would become like him, constantly watching what people are touching and sniffing. Already, he says, in his lab, handshaking – once a mundane habit – has become something totally new. The researchers are hyperaware of what cues they might be exchanging with a simple greeting.
The rest of us might not be able to handle this awareness. It’s embarrassing to be caught smelling ourselves. Sobel saw evidence of this after his handshaking experiments, when researchers explained the purpose of the study to their subjects and asked for permission to publish their video footage. The people whose footage revealed the most extreme hand-sniffing behaviour refused to release it.
‘In our society generally, we do not appreciate body odours,’ said Johannes Frasnelli, an expert in chemosensory processing at Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières. ‘I’m no different – I don’t appreciate having somebody sweaty in front of me in the bus.’ A strong personal odour isn’t socially acceptable. We go to great lengths to cover up our human odours: we shower daily, launder our clothes, swipe on deodorant, spritz perfume, hang air fresheners in our cars. Whatever scent signals pass between our bodies have to fight their way through.
Yet we also crave each other’s odours. There’s the scent of a romantic partner, for example, which we might catch lingering on a pillow. ‘In the bedroom, the sense of smell becomes important,’ said Frasnelli. ‘Sometimes this can be scary because our culture prohibits us from enjoying the smell of somebody else.’
It’s perfectly acceptable, too, to take a hearty sniff of your baby. You can even sniff a friend’s baby, breathing in a little of that sweet, milky smell, without causing a fuss.
In these moments, our nature as olfactory animals comes through. When we inhale the scents of our loved ones, we might be reinforcing the bonds between us. Among strangers, whether we’re steeped in their aromas on the subway or greeting them with a handshake, we might be learning about people with our noses as much as with our eyes. Perhaps we should be okay, then, with breathing deeper to learn a little more.
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is a freelance science writer and editor. Her blog, Inkfish, is published by Discover magazine, and her writing has appeared in Wired.com, Jezebel and The Boston Globe, among others. She lives near Boston.