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J Auton Nerv Syst. 1999 Feb 15;75(2-3):176-83.

Basic emotions induced by odorants: a new approach based on autonomic pattern results.

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Emotion-Cognition, GIS CNRS Sciences de la cognition, Universit├ę Claude Bernard, Lyon I, INSA Lyon, Villeurbanne, France.


The aim of this study was to link the effects of odorants with the emotional process, through autonomic nervous system (ANS) responses. Taking Ekman's data and our previous results into account, we tried to verify a possible evocation by odorants of some basic emotions, i.e. anger, fear, sadness, surprise, disgust and happiness. The question investigated was: would it be possible to associate any of these emotions with a pattern of autonomic responses? A total of 15 subjects inhaled five odorants: lavender, ethyl aceto acetate, camphor, acetic acid and butyric acid acting as olfactory stimuli. After inhaling the odorant, subjects were requested to fill out an 11-point hedonic scale to rate its 'pleasantness' vs. 'unpleasantness'. ANS parameters monitored were skin potential and resistance, skin blood flow and temperature, instantaneous respiratory frequency and instantaneous heart rate. Simultaneous recording of these six autonomic parameters permitted the analysis of phasic responses through specific ANS patterns. An analysis of variance made it possible to differentiate among the five odorants. Two-by-two odorant comparisons for autonomic responses using Tukey's HSD multiple comparison test only permitted differentiation between 'pleasant' and 'unpleasant' odors. Camphor was differentiated from both types. For instance, long duration responses were associated with 'unpleasant' odors whereas camphor elicited intermediate responses. Taking into account each subject's preferential channel, it was possible to associate each ANS pattern with a basic emotion by means of a decision tree. The computation of subjects' responses made it possible to associate an odorant with a basic emotion, over the whole group: lavender elicited mostly 'happiness', as did, to a lesser degree ethyl aceto acetate; camphor induced either 'happiness', 'surprise' or 'sadness' according to subjects' past histories; butyric and acetic acids mainly induced negative emotions: 'anger' and 'disgust'. A high correlation was evidenced between subjects' hedonic evaluation and autonomic estimation of basic emotions. These results obtained from 15 subjects were compared to those observed in two similar experiments. These approaches showed comparable results. Thus, more than 60 subjects showed similar autonomic responses which can be transcribed into basic emotions. Thus, a multiparametric autonomic analysis allows the identification of the quality of the response, i.e. the type of basic emotion in addition to the intensity.

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