Science of Love, Sex, and Babies

You smell fear, whether you realize it or not

Posted in news by jenapincott on December 29, 2008

_44173138_fearmale1Our bodies speak to one another in airborne chemical signals that bypass our conscious brains. In BLONDES I fixate on this truth, detailing studies that have shown exactly how these chemicals, called sex pheromones, can trigger sexual attraction. Some studies show that sex pheromones have a marked effect on behavior — potentially making women more receptive, upbeat, and attracted (in the case of androstadienone-related odors) and men more drawn to the body odors of a woman when she’s most likely to conceive (in the case of estrogen-related odors).

And now a news flash: sex pheromones aren’t the only types of pheromones that may affect human behavior. There are also alarm pheromones – chemical signals, like fear gas, that make a person more alert, more on edge. Stony Brook University neurobiologist Lilianne Mujica-Parodi and her colleagues taped absorbent pads into the armpits of 144 first-time skydivers, collecting their fear sweat before and during a 13,000-foot free-fall jump. Then the research team enlisted another set of volunteers to smell either a.) the skydivers’ sweaty pads (fear sweat); or b.) pads worn by sweaty subjects who had simply been working out (exercise sweat), while having their brains scanned by fMRI. Although participants rated fear sweat and exercise sweat as having a similar intensity, their brains responded to the two sets of sweats in dramatically different ways. It turned out that fear sweat — and only fear sweat — triggered activity in the left amygdala, the region of the brain associated with fear. When shown pictures of faces with expressions that ranged from happy to furious, and asked to identify the emotion, people exposed to fear sweat were more accurate when distinguishing between angry and neutral expressions. A chemical component of the sweat, it appears, put them on their guard. The researchers call it “second-hand stress.”

None of this is surprising to biologists because other animals, even mammals, use alarm pheromones all the time. After inhaling alarm pheromones, rats and deer sniff and pace around, unable to let down their guard.

I’m intrigued by this. Alarm pheromones are a hidden biological component of our survival as social anim
als. Anywhere people are stressed or scared — exam rooms, hospitals, interrogation chambers, battlefields, trading floors, sports matches — there’s a residue in the air. Call it an ambient emotion. Call it emotional infection. Call it evolutionary hardwiring that primes us to act when there’s danger. Are some of us more sensitive to it than others? Probably. And its effect on behavior is no doubt context-dependent. I’d like to see more studies, a bigger n, and more distinction between genders.

Like many writer types, I’m hyper-sensitive to the emotions of others, sometimes to the detriment of my psychological well-being. If you’re scared, I worry. My guard goes up, too. Block my my olfactory system, the odor processing region where alarm pheromones may be processed — and would I be less sensitive to your stress?

8 Responses

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  1. Phillip said, on December 29, 2008 at 11:34 pm

    Vibes.. This is a question I’ve had for a long time, I understand that humans and many other species put off pheromones that our subconscious mind detects, but what about “vibes” or levels in the ray scale that most humans can’t see with their “normal” conscious? The reason I ask is because in my specific body make-up, I have a very dominant right hemisphere. My mom does also, I’m a freelance artist and she is a photographer. Anyway, under the influence of somewhat large mushroom trips before I’ve seen auras I guess you could call them, depending on the persons mood I saw a different sorrounding, similar to the way you can see rythms while on LSD, but I honestly feel that I saw/felt the way people were thinking (no telekenisis mumbo-jumbo), as in thoughts and moods. I’m fully open to the fact that this may have been 100% in my head, but also open to it being something else, I’d like to hear any experiences you may have.

    Good vibes and Godspeed

  2. sospokesaroj said, on December 30, 2008 at 12:06 am

    In the case of sex pheromones, it’s curious to note that the level of response depends MHC (major histocompatibility complex) similarity. The more similar it is to a woman’s own MHC, the less likely a woman is to be “turned on” so to speak, because it unconsciously reminds her too much of herself or her own family members. At the same time, if it’s too different, that is also a bit of a turn off. So it’s about finding the perfect balance, most of the time.

    Fear pheromones are interesting…probably explains the whole theory that animals can “smell fear.”

  3. Ducker said, on January 8, 2009 at 8:57 pm

    Back when I was a kid someone told me that you dont show fear to dogs because they can smell it and therefore bite you in the butt…..

    Now im thinking that its the fear sweat….totally makes sense to me, so therefore the dog attacks on the basis that it feels threatened by me…just like when you walk inside a penitentiary or something creepy you feel the mood is dangerous

  4. ginger said, on January 9, 2009 at 12:50 am

    I am pretty sure that – despite the fact we think we know everything – we actually know very little about what is really happening around us. We come up with new explanations and new findings all the time, but in the end all we do is to try and explain the world to ourselves, instinctively knowing that -so far- we only scratched the surface of our recollection of existence. I am a writer too, and like you am very sensitive and receptive to my emotional environment, also to the same extent as you described. As ‘trust giving’ as this nature is to my friends, it can be a real burden when working amongst crowds of people, all residing in their different states of mind (ie. a University). To me the worst ‘soul interference’ is dealing with those who try to (or need to) pretend they feel good, even so they don’t. I can see and feel their discomfort, but still I cannot act upon it, cannot be straightforward with them, and that ‘thought bending’ takes up huge amounts of my energy. So yes I 100% believe that our senses pick up stuff from which our minds are still light years away of being able to explain. We unconsciously pick up and our bodies react, and we hardly get the chance and/or take the time to reflect or even become aware of the occurrence. I often think that a 100 years from now the folks will look back and consider us barbaric and ruthless, because today we so much do not care about what one day will be of the utmost essence.

    • jenapincott said, on January 9, 2009 at 1:00 am

      Beautifully said — I agree, and I think we’re only at the cusp of figuring out all our unconscious emotional feedback mechanisms…Maybe in 100 years we’ll be closer and more emotionally attuned. Well, it’s a nice thought.

  5. […] fascinate me, and not only the ones that mediate sexual attraction. Several months ago I wrote a post about a study that suggests that airborne chemical signals also mediate stress and fear. Known as […]

  6. Computer News said, on January 13, 2010 at 4:36 am

    My cousin would really appreciate this website. We were just talking about this. hehe

  7. Lynne Getty said, on January 28, 2010 at 3:04 am

    Awesome I love examples of articles that have been written, and especially the comments posted! I’ll definately be visiting again!

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