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The Nose Knows

How odors subconsciously affect your thoughts.

By Jessica MarshallDecember 1, 2005 6:00 AM


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Ever feel that your thoughts are not your own? You might be right—you may be inhaling them.

Psychologists at Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands have found that they can use odors to manipulate behavior. Exposed to the smell of all-purpose cleaning fluid, for instance, Dutch undergraduates think cleaner thoughts and spread fewer crumbs.

Scientists know the nose taps directly into a primitive part of the brain. It tells us not to eat rotten eggs and probably mediates sexual attraction. Social psychologist Rob Holland and his colleagues showed that odors affect not just our baser instincts but also our cognitive processes. "Scents have all kinds of associations, and these associations may influence our behavior," Holland says.

Being in the presence of a hidden bucket of citrus-scented cleanser, the study found, brings cleaning-related words to mind. Citrus smellers are also likely to list tidying up among their top five plans for the day. Holland has not tried citrus smells on his graduate students, but he has tried beer. After spreading a little over the table, he asked a student what he would do on the weekend. The response: "Party!"

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