How Real Are Vibes: The Good and the Bad?


The perception of good vibes and bad vibes is among the most difficult human experiences to define. The feeling that something “feels right” or that something “just isn’t right” has been attributed to multiple factors.


The perception of good vibes and bad vibes is among the most difficult human experiences to define. The feeling that something “feels right” or that something “just isn’t right” has been attributed to factors ranging from strong instincts to subconsciously picking up on subtle facial expressions and vocal tones. Both of these explanations lie in the brain’s ability to cognitively process a variety of sensory inputs to reach a conclusion.

Unexplained good and bad vibes
Although there are cognitive explanations for why people pick up on negative or positive environmental cues, there are still unanswered questions about why some places seem to have a positive “something” while other places seem to have a corresponding, yet illogical, negative “something.” For example, people may judge a room, a house, or an office as a comfortable space (ie, environment), promoting overall emotional stability or productivity. Similarly, there are places that are considered by many to be unproductive or unhappy. Moreover, there is a common human experience of learning that an environment one has deemed good or bad with too little evidence indeed turned out to be an environment that was filled with correspondingly positive or negative events in the past.

The science of this phenomenon is the study of emotional residue, which explores whether an environment inherently “contains” left over evidence of previous emotions. Interesting research suggests that the nervous system can pick up on chemical signals in a physical space that may ultimately have something to do with that feeling of good or bad vibes.

Chemicals and their effect on human emotions
It turns out that chemosignals, which are present in sweat and tears, can remain in the surrounding environment. Several experiments describe the human response to these signals, even in the absence of contact with the original source of the signals.

Findings from a study in the Netherlands indicate that chemosignals produced by individuals who felt fear generated an interesting reaction among volunteers who were exposed to the chemosignals.1 The volunteers began to search for the signals through sniffing and eye scanning and developed their own fearful facial expressions. In the same experiment, exposure to chemosignals produced by individuals who felt disgust generated a disgusted facial expression and avoidance of the signals as measured by eye scanning and sniffing. A later experiment, also involving healthy volunteers in the Netherlands, found that exposure to body odor collected from people who reported a happy state induced happiness in the exposed participants.2

The exact route of how these chemical signals are processed in the human brain is yet to be determined. Interestingly, while these studies suggest that the response takes place quickly, it is not clear exactly how long the effects of the chemosignals last and whether the emotional residue can be “shaken off.”

Social impact of others’ emotions
The phrases “good energy” and “negative energy” are common, yet the root of these perceptions is mysterious. Whether the conclusions come from biased snap decisions or they are fundamentally accurate reflections of the environment is unclear. But growing evidence suggests that human emotions may be not only contagious, but may stay behind in the environment, potentially infecting or brightening surroundings even after the producer of that emotion has physically moved to a new location.


1. de Groot JH, Smeets MA, Kaldewaij A, et al. Chemosignals communicate human emotions. Psychol Sci. 2012;23:1417-1424.
2. de Groot JH, Smeets MA, Rowson MJ, et al. A sniff of happiness. Psychol Sci. 2015;26:684-700.

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