If you’re one of the tens of millions of people who dread the dentist, then we have bad news: Dentists can literally smell your fear – and it could affect how well they perform on your teeth.
A new study published in Chemical Senses suggests dentists can smell when a patient is stressed, making them more likely to make mistakes and perform poorly. That’s because they’re picking up on “chemosignals” found in their patients’ body odor. While scientists aren’t totally sure to what extent these chemosignals influence humans, they do know that our emotions can be conveyed through our scent.
In this case, it’s the first real-world evaluation of how anxiety can be communicated through perspiration, according to the authors. For the study, researchers asked 24 dental student volunteers to donate two shirts: one that was worn during a stressful exam and another during a calm lecture. The t-shirts were then masked with a chemical that made it impossible to decipher the difference in smell between the two shirts – their original chemical signatures, though now not perceptible, were still present. These tees were then put on mannequins for a second group of 24 dental students to perform dental work on, for which they were graded by instructors. In nearly all cases, the students performed significantly worse when treating the mannequins wearing the stressed tees and were more likely to make mistakes that damaged their teeth.
While the researchers aren’t sure if fully-trained dentists would have the same response, they say this provides evidence that the smell of anxiety can trigger the same feeling in those subconsciously smelling it. These effects could possibly be seen in other settings as well, for example, when a doctor is performing on a nervous patient or a student is taking an exam next to an anxious peer.
Chemosensory communication can convey a range of mental states – such as emotions or sickness – as well as traits like individuality and gender. Our smell even helps us find a genetically appropriate partner and form emotional bonds with our children. Little is known about how smells help us interpret happiness, but studies show we can use the scent of others to interpret threats such as sadness, aggression, and disgust.
Dental anxiety is a real thing; as many as 20 percent of people report stress when going to the dentist and would rather skip their appointment and risk poor dental health and oral health diseases. The researchers hope the study will help inform dentists and doctors of potential biases when working on their patients.