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Quantifying response to emotional stimuli of chemical emissions on human breath

Project Description

Human breath is a complex source of chemical emissions into air. Recent reports suggest these emissions vary in response to audiovisual stimuli (Fig. 1), with scenes of Suspense and Comedy causing cinema audiences to reproducibly change their chemical signature (1). In our pilot study (York, February 2018, Fig. 2), online SIFT-MS (Fig. 3) was used to monitor over twenty volatile organic compounds on human breath at high sensitivity, selectivity and time resolution. Thirty-six individuals were monitored whist watching a variety of short film clips; preliminary results suggest that Fear and Jeopardy also elicit reproducible chemical responses. Such event-based human chemosignals offer great potential for objective, non-invasive quantification of human responses to emotional stimuli.

Fig. 1 – audiovisual (AV) stimuli potentially influence VOC in exhaled breath via the autonomic nervous system (ANS). Fig. 2 – participants watch video clips whilst breath is monitored by volume transducer and SIFT-MS. Fig. 3 – selective ion flow tube mass-spectrometry (SIFT-MS) is the key analytical tool, able to monitor dozens of VOC

These methods could be applied to research in psychology, biology, medicine and even media and advertising. This project will further develop and exploit methods trialled in the pilot study, with careful benchmarking though physiological measurements (cardio & respiration rate, skin conductance), different emotional stimuli and widening the suite of target molecules. The student will benefit by being well positioned for a variety of employment opportunities, in rapidly expanding areas such as analytical-chemistry, psychology, data analysis and wider interdisciplinary science.

All research students follow our innovative Doctoral Training in Chemistry (iDTC): cohort-based training to support the development of scientific, transferable and employability skills. All research students take the core training package which provides both a grounding in the skills required for their research, and transferable skills to enhance employability opportunities following graduation. Core training is progressive and takes place at appropriate points throughout a student’s higher degree programme, with the majority of training taking place in Year 1. In conjunction with the Core training, students, in consultation with their supervisor(s), select training related to the area of their research.

Training in SIFT-MS and other necessary gas-analytic techniques will be provided; no prior experience necessary. Other project-specific training including on data analysis with R-Studio and other statistical methods will be provided by supervisors and via the York-Leeds collaborative programme PANORAMA.

The Department of Chemistry holds an Athena SWAN Gold Award and is committed to supporting equality and diversity for all staff and students. The Department strives to provide a working environment which allows all staff and students to contribute fully, to flourish, and to excel. Chemistry at York was the first academic department in the UK to receive the Athena SWAN Gold award, first attained in 2007 and then renewed in October 2010 and in April 2015.

Funding Notes

This project is open to students who can fund their own studies or who have been awarded a scholarship separate from this project. The Chemistry Department at York is pleased to offer Wild Fund Scholarships to those from countries outside the UK. Wild Fund Scholarships offer up to full tuition fees for those from countries from outside the European Union. EU students may also be offered £6,000 per year towards living costs. For further information see: View Website


(1) Williams, J. et al. Cinema audiences reproducibly vary the chemical composition of air during films, by broadcasting scene specific emissions on breath. Nature Sci. Rep. 6, 25464; doi: 10.1038/srep25464 (2016)

Related Subjects

How good is research at University of York in Chemistry?

FTE Category A staff submitted: 47.06

Research output data provided by the Research Excellence Framework (REF)

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