Dentists can smell fear and it may impair their performance

New research suggests that dentists may unconsciously smell fear and that their patients' anxiety can hurt their performance. How did the scientists control for the fact that a patient's anxiety in the dental chair is pretty obvious? First, Valentina Parma and her colleagues at the International School for Advanced Studies in Trieste, Italy collected t-shirts worn by students who had sat for a difficult exam or a calm lecture.

From New Scientist:

The team then doused the T-shirts with a chemical that masks body odour, so that it wasn’t possible to consciously smell any body odour on them. When the T-shirts were presented to a different group of 24 dental students, they said they couldn’t detect any difference between those taken from the stressful or the relaxed situations.

Next, mannequins were dressed in the donated T-shirts, and the second group of students had to perform dental treatments on them. Each student was graded on their performance by examiners – and they performed significantly worse when treating mannequins wearing T-shirts from people who’d been stressed. Mistakes included being more likely to damage neighbouring teeth, for example.

Parma thinks the scent of anxiety could be triggering the same emotions in those who subconsciously smell it. “It’s quite fascinating,” says Pamela Dalton at Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. “It helps us understand how we can communicate without language.”

"Smelling Anxiety Chemosignals Impairs Clinical Performance of Dental Students" (Chemical Senses via Weird Universe)

image: David Shankbone, CC