Autonomic nervous system responses to odours: the role of pleasantness and arousal

Chem Senses. 2002 Oct;27(8):703-9. doi: 10.1093/chemse/27.8.703.


Perception of odours can provoke explicit reactions such as judgements of intensity or pleasantness, and implicit output such as skin conductance or heart rate variations. The main purpose of the present experiment was to ascertain: (i) the correlation between odour ratings (intensity, arousal, pleasantness and familiarity) and activation of the autonomic nervous system, and (ii) the inter-correlation between self-report ratings on intensity, arousal, pleasantness and familiarity dimensions in odour perception. Twelve healthy volunteers were tested in two separate sessions. Firstly, subjects were instructed to smell six odorants (isovaleric acid, thiophenol, pyridine, L-menthol, isoamyl acetate, and 1-8 cineole), while skin conductance and heart rate variations were being measured. During this phase, participants were not asked to give any judgement about the odorants. Secondly, subjects were instructed to rate the odorants on dimensions of intensity, pleasantness, arousal and familiarity (self-report ratings), by giving a mark between 1 (not at all intense, arousing, pleasant or familiar) and 9 (extremely intense, arousing, pleasant or familiar). Results indicated: (i) a pleasantness factor correlated with heart rate variations, (ii) an arousal factor correlated with skin conductance variations, and (iii) a strong correlation between the arousal and intensity dimensions. In conclusion, given that these correlations are also found in other studies using visual and auditory stimuli, these findings provide preliminary information suggesting that autonomic variations in response to olfactory stimuli are probably not modality specific, and may be organized along two main dimensions of pleasantness and arousal, at least for the parameters considered (i.e. heart rate and skin conductance).

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Affect / physiology*
  • Autonomic Nervous System / physiology*
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Female
  • Galvanic Skin Response / drug effects
  • Heart Rate / drug effects
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Odorants*
  • Recognition, Psychology / physiology
  • Smell / physiology*