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Scientists investigate the role of smell and hearing in the perception of other people

02.10.2017 Society

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Psychologists from Wrocław analyse the role of the senses in perceiving and interpreting the behaviour of other people. Their subjects are both blind and sighted people. By participating in experiments, blind people help to understand people with other dysfunctions - not just the deaf but also those who do not have the sense of smell.

"Sight allows us to accumulate a large amount of socially relevant information, but hearing and smell also allow us to obtain information about other people. In my research work, I try to determine to what extent people use also these two senses in the social sphere" - explained Dr. Anna Oleszkiewicz from the Institute of Psychology, University of Wrocław.


The study is conducted with people who do not have hearing and smell disorders. But among the subjects are - divided into two groups - the blind and the sighted. By participating in experiments, blind people help to understand people with other dysfunctions - not just the deaf but also those who do not have the sense of smell.


"We underestimate the sense of smell, but it is a very important sense. Its lack limits the ability to taste. It is difficult to live a life without smelling food, cosmetics, it limits the exchange of experiences. Interpersonal relations are also disrupted when one can not smell the other person. The scent of the body provides a lot of socially relevant information" said Dr. Oleszkiewicz.


A person with a reduced ability to smell is a hyposmiac. An anosmiac is completely incapable of detecting odours. Problems with the sense of smell can be caused by allergies, nasal polyps, past infections, head injuries and infections, they also accompany neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson's disease. Olfactory disorders affect up to 15% of the population, about 5% are anosmiacs.




Dr. Oleszkiewicz, this year's scholarship holder of the START Program for Polish Science, conducted hearing tests consisting of reproduction of recordings to the sighted and the blind. The participants listened to both verbal statements and recorded vowel sounds or other non-verbal sounds.


"We compared blind and sighted people in terms of the inference of the social traits of the speaker and his or her height on the basis of non-verbal voice indications. The respondents were asked to evaluate how empowered, pro-community and credible the speaker was. They also asked to guess whether the recorded person was taller or shorter. We had information about the height of the recorded people, so we could determine the accuracy of the guesses. In both groups the results were at a similar level, contrary to expectations, blind people did not guess more accurately" - the researcher reported.




In research on the sense of smell, the University of Wroclaw cooperates with the Technische Universität Dresden and its Interdisciplinary Center "Smell & Taste", where people with disorders of these two senses are treated. Dr. Oleszkiewicz is trying to figure out how types of scent information are synthesized in the human brain.


"Each scent consists of a fragrance component and a triple component responsible for the sensation of coolness, burning or itching. We provide test participants with mixtures with different concentrations of these two components. We want to know how the brain synthesizes this information" - the researcher explained.


A research method designed in Dresden in 1997 allows to assess whether someone has a good or a weak sense of smell. Polish researcher tries to improve that method so that it allows to make a more precise diagnosis of smell disorders. She discovered that instead of single substances it is better to use fragrance mixtures. Differentiation of scent components in the test allows to obtain a more stable result. It is possible that someone may have problems with one particular scent, and no problems with other scents. Using a fragrance mixture eliminates individual differences.


Smell disorders do not mean that the sense is lost forever. It is a plastic sense that can be improved. Dr. Oleszkiewicz's research is aimed at improving the method of olfactory training, which allows to restore that sense to a certain extent.




Olfactory training consists of two meetings. During these two meetings the participants' olfactory abilities are measured. At the first meeting, the subjects receive scent samples that they are asked to sniff four times a day for one to three months. After this "homework", the participants return for the second session. Researchers test whether they have achieved better olfactory results than in the first session. In most cases there is a significant improvement, but the effectiveness of training often depends on the reason for reduced olfactory function. For example, patients whose olfactory capacity decreases as a result of infection respond better to olfactory training than those who lost the sense of smell as a result of head trauma. The researcher added that all participants in the study enjoyed the training and participated in it with great enthusiasm.


Patients from the Dresden clinic are involved some of the projects. There is no reason to assume that there are more people with smell and taste disorders in Germany than in Poland, but in Poland it is harder to reach them, the researcher believes. In her opinion, many Poles do not know that they have such problems and that they can be treated.


In the study of smell and hearing, Dr. Oleszkiewicz works in the team with Dr. Katarzyna Pisanski, Dr. Agnieszka Sorokowska and Prof. Piotr Sorokowski. In Germany, her mentor is Prof. Thomas Hummel, head of the Interdisciplinary Center "Smell & Taste, Technische Universität Dresden. A comparative project between the blind and the sighted is conducted jointly with Dr. Sorokowska.


PAP - Science and Scholarship in Poland, Karolina Duszczyk


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