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The Smell of Fear

Biologists know that when threatened, many animals release chemicals as a warning signal to members of their own species, who in turn react to the signals and take action.

Now, new research by Rice University psychologist Denise Chen suggests a similar phenomenon occurs in humans. Given that more than one sense is typically involved when humans perceive information, Chen studied whether the smell of fear facilitates humans’ other stronger senses.

Chen and graduate student Wen Zhou collected “fearful sweat” samples from male volunteers. The volunteers kept gauze pads in their armpits while they were shown films that dealt with topics known to inspire fear.

Later, female volunteers were exposed to chemicals from the “fearful sweat” when they were fitted with a piece of gauze under their nostrils. They then viewed images of faces that morphed from happy to ambiguous to fearful. They were asked to indicate whether the face was happy or fearful by pressing buttons on a computer.

Exposure to the smell of fear biased women toward interpreting facial expressions as more fearful, but only when the expressions were ambiguous. It had no effect when the facial emotions were more discernible.

Chen’s conclusion is consistent with what’s been found with processing emotions in both the face and the voice. There, an emotion from one sense modulates how the same emotion is perceived in another sense, especially when the signal to the latter sense is ambiguous.

“Our findings provide direct behavioral evidence that human sweat contains emotional meanings,” Chen said. “They also demonstrate that social smells modulate vision in an emotion-specific way.”

Smell is a prevalent form of social communication in many animals, but its function in humans is enigmatic. Humans have highly developed senses of sight and hearing. Why do we still need olfaction?

Findings by Chen and Zhou offer insight on this topic. “The sense of smell guides our social perception when the more-dominant senses are weak,” Chen said.

Source: Rice University

The Smell of Fear

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2016). The Smell of Fear. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 19, 2018, from https://psychcentral.com/news/2009/03/09/the-smell-of-fear/4616.html

 

Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 30 Jun 2016
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Jun 2016
Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.