Communicating through smell

2024 until 2024
Project member(s)
Dr J.H.B. de Groot (Jasper)
Project type

This project is now full; anyone who applies will be put on a waiting list.

We have been looking down our noses for thousands of years. We obviously don’t go around sniffing things like animals do, because that would be just be unsophisticated! But then science discovered that the human nose is actually capable of doing so much more than we first thought. Just like dogs, people are able to follow a scent trail across a lawn. Sometimes we’re even better at detecting a fragrance than dogs or mice! We use smell to determine whether or not we would like to eat a certain food. We also try to escape from unpleasant odours that may be harmful for us, such as smoke or gas. And did you know that we can even communicate with each other through our odour, without even realising it? The term body odour sounds a little grubby, but it’s also quite a unique thing, because it tells other people how you are feeling, particularly if you’re scared, happy or angry. One of the things that we’ll be investigating is how well can you actually smell. And you’re also going to find out exactly how olfactory research is carried out!

Classroom project

The ‘There’s Something in the Air...’ project consists of four research activities that will be carried out in the classroom during a half-day session of about 2.5 hours. Researcher Jasper de Groot and his colleagues will explain the activities and also supervise them. They will provide the materials and set them up in the classroom. The teachers will be asked to help us with the supervision of the activities.

The project will begin with a short presentation about our sense of smell, which will be given by researcher Jasper de Groot. The class will then be divided into groups of 6 to 8 pupils and the groups will carry out a series of four different activities:

  1. With the help of scented markers, pupils will investigate how well they can smell. Each scented marker has its own multiple-choice answer card, from which the pupils can select the most appropriate odour. Once all of the pupils have served as test subjects, they will check their answers and then compare them with their group members’ answers and with the results from previous research.
  2. The pupils will then use absorbent pads to collect samples of fear sweat. The pupils will place a pad in each of their armpits, and either watch a suspenseful film or do physical exercise that will cause them to break out in a slight sweat. The roles will then be reversed, so that samples are ultimately collected while each pupil is watching a suspenseful film or doing slightly strenuous exercise; all samples will be anonymous.
  3. Using an olfactometer, which is a machine that diffuses smells, the pupils will examine whether they are able to smell the difference between fear sweat and exercise sweat. For this purpose, they will use the pads that were collected from the previous activity.
  4. The pupils will then explore what happens when you blend smells. For this purpose, they will use vanilla fragrance, freshly cut grass and a component of fear smell. By making combinations, they will discover whether new smells have been created or whether they can still smell the individual smells in the mixture.

At the end of the lesson, Jasper De Groot will discuss the activities that were carried out in the classroom with the pupils and explain how these activities correspond to his own research.

About Jasper de Groot’s research

Jasper de Groot conducts research into ‘the chemistry between us’, which looks at the social functions of the human olfactory system. The 1970s and 1990s saw the launch of a number of research investigations into social communication through smell. However, this turned out to be a complicated research area, which was difficult to grasp from one line of research, and interest in this topic continually waned. Jasper de Groot overcame this trend by taking a multidisciplinary research approach. His research combines evolutionary and psychological theories and also involves the chemical and neurological aspects of smell. With the use of virtual reality (VR) glasses, he has consequently shown that experiencing scents in a realistic environment is very different to experiencing scents in a sterile laboratory environment. For the purpose of valid and useful research, it is therefore essential that this research is carried out in real or realistic social situations. Jasper de Groot’s research has also shown that the amount of anxiety that people experience is related to the amount of anxiety-related odour molecules that reach their nose. Despite the complex chemistry of smell, the human olfactory system is quite adept at identifying different intensity levels of anxiety odour.