Research looks at science behind the smell of fear
Turns out if you think you can smell that someone's afraid, it might actually be the case. Scientists recently published new research that looks at how animals, and humans, use smell to tell whether they're in danger.
You've probably heard that animals can smell fear.
That's probably true. And wild animals aren't the only ones. Turns out, your boss — or your date — might also be able to sniff the fear right out of you.
In a new report, scientists discovered that animals can often smell each other's fear — but it doesn't always lead to the reaction you might expect.
New York Times science columnist Natalie Angier documented the study in a recent article.
"We don't normally think of it as anything other than metaphorical, but in fact, it is very real. There is a smell of fear," she said.
In the study, scientists studies the Eurasian roller, a small bird found in Spain. Adult birds avoided their nests upon smelling their terrified young's vomit.
"Birds and humans have in common that we're not normally associated with having a keen sense of smell," she said.
And that wasn't all. Lab rats placed downwind of their murine companions imitated any rat they could smell being electrically shocked. And minnows, despite not having noses, know to flee when they sense the pheromones emitted by the skin of an injured compatriot.
Angier said scientists aren't exactly sure why the injured or endangered animals produce these smells. It's not likely an alarm, because the reaction of compatriots isn't to come and help, but rather to run away.
"When the scientists exposed the nest boxes to this odor, it made the parents keep out of the nest and not feed the nestlings for a prolonged period of time," Angier said. "It makes good, Darwinian sense for parents to not enter into a possible dangerous situation and themselves be hurt."
Humans aren't immune, either, Angier said. Test subjects, upon sniffing swabs placed under the armpits of movie-goers, could immediately tell who had seen the scarier film.
They labelled the scent as not only stronger, but more "aggressive."
"They don't always detect an odor, but they end up responding differently whether it's the smell from the fearful subjects or people who were just watching documentaries," Angier said.
The smell also produces a very interesting physiological reaction.
Angier said studies have shown people who are exposed to scents of fear can not only recognize fear more easily, but sometimes can even perform better on cognitive tests.
"Raising the possibility that perhaps we could have some study aid coming out of this fear research," Angier said.
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