Can the Chemicals We Exhale Reveal Our Mood?

In a groundbreaking new study, scientists have linked the chemicals in our breath to the emotions we’re experiencing. How can their data be translated to larger commercial and biomedical applications?

The Study

German researcher Johnathan Williams and colleagues, in association with the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry and the Johannes Guttenburg University of Mainz, recently studied the collections of mass spectrometers in crowded movie theaters. Over the course of 108 screenings, some 9,500 audience members showed specific chemical patterns, leading the scientists to several interesting conclusions. The spectrometers measured the mass of the air’s molecules which provided enough information to accurately identify its chemical makeup.

The Chemistry

When the films showed surprising, gasp-worthy images, researchers detected more isoprene in the air. Isoprene is commonly linked to cortisol, the human “stress hormone,” which makes sense when correlated with the film’s stressful moments. When the movies were more tense or humorous, researchers detected higher carbon dioxide levels, corresponding to faster breathing patterns. The patterns were so distinct that by the end of the analyzation, researchers said they could actually identify the movie theatergoers were watching by the chemical makeup of their breath.

The Implications

Scientists have long speculated that chemicals in our breath actually help us subconsciously communicate with one another. Our sensory systems are extremely sensitive – can they actually detect chemicals in the air that imply a situation may be dangerous or tense? If theatergoers could silently intuit how their seatmates were feeling about a film based on the composition of the air, chemicals could theoretically be impacting everyone’s experience of the same film, homogenizing it.

The implication for marketers, filmmakers, and even game manufacturers are obvious. Would pumping a specific chemical compound into the air change the way a consumer experiences the movie, game, or advertisement? Maybe. Researchers are also working tirelessly on breath detection tests for cancer and other diseases that use exhalation to measure certain chemical compounds. Could the current emotions of the test subject effect the outcome of the test? Also a possibility.

Whatever the scientific and commercial inferences, the idea that we’re communicating with each other via chemical output is an interesting one. Pheromones have long been understood to wordlessly relay messages…does our popcorn breath do the same?

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