Why Smell Is at the Center of Religious Experience

An article published in the journal Scientific Reports this month provides evidence that Smell-O-Vision may never have gone away. The finding has implications for the study of human chemical signaling—and also, perhaps, for the study of religion.


The German research team starts from an unusual premise: crowds don’t just release all sorts of noises and smells. They may also change the chemical composition of the air.

A movie theater, for example, contains more than flickering images and surround sound. It also contains a whole cocktail of chemicals released by our bodies, creating a kind of localized atmosphere that human beings may even be able to sense. In a crowded theater, bodies release chemicals related to respiration and muscular agitation, such as carbon dioxide (CO2) and isoprene.

The researchers wondered whether this cocktail of chemicals can actually change in a predictable way, in sync with the crowd’s emotions. So they went into a movie theater, set up sensors in an air vent, and tracked some chemicals. The researchers found that the chemical profile of the theater atmosphere was modified according to the events onscreen. Each film produced what the authors called a distinct “CO2 profile,” a map of peaks and valleys corresponding to the plot trajectory—and especially the moments of high excitement—of the movies onscreen.

One scientific study doesn’t make a revolution. It’s still not clear whether human beings are able to directly signal emotions through odorless pheromones. And, as the blog Neuroskeptic points out, although the theater researchers chose to sample over 100 chemicals, they only reported the results of three, leaving one to wonder whether they were hoping to find other, more compelling results.

But the researchers do provide direct evidence that an atmosphere in a room changes in response to what the people in the room are feeling, and that those changes may be detectable.

It’s significant just to see researchers asking these questions—and to see their answers getting such widespread press. After all, the study of social interactions has, overwhelmingly, been the study of language and sight: of mass messaging, and of the ways that people perceive, internalize, and respond to familiar kinds of narratives and cues. Research like this German study opens up other, exciting avenues of questioning: what if the experience of crowds comes through subtler cues, such as chemicals, smells, body language, facial expressions, or things we don’t even know that we’re sensing, like neurohormones?

This line of questioning has big implications for the way we think about religion—especially religion as it’s done in sacred spaces or alongside other people (i.e. just about all of it). What if religion were not just about the words that we hear and the beliefs that we hold, but about the way that we feel as part of a group—whether in a solemn assembly or a rambunctious rally?

Social theorist Teresa Brennan calls this “the transmission of affect.” She describes how when we enter a room we “feel the atmosphere,” and suggests that this is a result of not only how the people in the room look (are they tense? relaxed? close together? smiling? scowling? leaning in or ignoring each other?), sound (are they laughing? loud or hushed? speaking in clipped sentences or tumbling over each other’s words?) and smell (she believes that we sample the pheromonal cocktail in the room and are affected by it).

Scholars of religion have become increasingly interested in the last decade in the sensory aspects of religion: the way that objects, images, sounds, flavors, and smells shape religious practice. (As the anthropologist Michael Taussig asks in the title of a 2009 book, What Color Is the Sacred?)

But the smell of the sacred may go back to something even deeper. In his 1912 book The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, Emile Durkheim proposed that religion is made through a collective “effervescence” summoned when people are gathered together in a spirit of excitement, such as the French Revolution or the Australian aboriginal “corroboree” celebration.

But what is this effervescence? Durkheim doesn’t know, suggesting only that “[t]he initial impulse is thereby amplified each time it is echoed, like an avalanche that grows as it goes along.”

As this new research suggests, to understand effervescence, we may have to go beyond the familiar markers of excitement (sounds, phrases, etc.) and consider dimensions of experience, such as the chemical, that are usually invisible to social analysis. What if, in a truly Durkheimian move, the smell of the sacred turned out to be the smell of ourselves? Rituals, congregations, and sacred spaces may be much more than just a shared hallucination, as Freud thought: they may be tinged with a chemical force that binds bodies to each other in important ways—or with other vectors of experience that can be hard to see at first glance.

In worship communities, as with movie theaters, there may be more at play than just beliefs and narratives. As Durkheim saw, megachurches, stadiums, revivals, and rallies are where religion happens, not just in our heads.

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