VANCOUVER — Feeling lonely while your partner is out of town? Your nose may hold the key to keeping your loved one close. Just sniffing an item recently worn by your partner may bring comfort and stress relief when you have to be apart, according to a recent study conducted at the University of British Columbia.
“Many people wear their partner’s shirt or sleep on their partner’s side of the bed when their partner is away, but may not realize why they engage in these behaviors,” explains Marlise Hofer, lead study author and a graduate student in the university’s Department of Psychology, in a release. “Our findings suggest that a partner’s scent alone, even without their physical presence, can be a powerful tool to help reduce stress.”
Researchers studied 96 opposite-sex couples, with the women acting as the “smellers” because, in case you weren’t aware, they typically have a stronger sense of smell. Men were asked to wear a clean T-shirt for 24 hours and to avoid deodorants, scented body products, smoking and foods that might impact their natural scent. The T-shirts were then frozen to maintain the scent.
Women were randomly assigned to one of three T-shirt groups. Unbeknownst to them, some were handed a T-shirt that had never been worn while others were given a T-shirt that had been worn by either a stranger or their loved one.
After the women had a chance to inhale the aromas embedded in the fibers, they were given a stress test. The test included a mock job interview and a math task. The women also answered questions about their stress levels and provided saliva samples so cortisol levels could be measured.
Researchers determined that women inhaling their partner’s scents were less stressed both before and after the stress test than those assigned either a T-shirt with a stranger’s scent or one that was not worn. Women who were given the shirt worn by their partner and who correctly matched the scent to their partner had lower cortisol levels. Researchers think this may mean simply knowing that they were smelling their loved one’s scent gave these women stress relief — proving that the nose knows.
Conversely, women given a stranger’s shirt were not soothed. In fact, their cortisol levels remained high throughout the stress test. Researchers think evolution may play a part in the negative reaction to a stranger’s scent.
“From a young age, humans fear strangers, especially strange males, so it is possible that a strange male scent triggers the ‘fight or flight’ response that leads to elevated cortisol,” says Hofer. “This could happen without us being fully aware of it.”
Researchers say there are practical applications for their findings. “With globalization, people are increasingly traveling for work and moving to new cities,” adds Frances Chen, senior study author and assistant psychology professor at the university. “Our research suggests that something as simple as taking an article of clothing that was worn by your loved one could help lower stress levels when you’re far from home.”
The study was published in the January 2018 edition of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.