Can People Really Smell Fear?

koosen/iStock via Getty Images
koosen/iStock via Getty Images

Fictional characters, and even real-life folks, often talk about animals and people—particularly snarling dogs and knife-wielding lunatics—being able to “smell fear” on people. No one ever seems to be able to describe just what fear smells like, though.

The lack of detail—Is it musty? Does it have a hint of vanilla?—leads one to think that the smell of fear is more metaphorical than literal. But scientific evidence suggests that fear might really have a chemical component that we sense through our noses without even realizing it. The matter is far from settled, though.

Right Under Your Nose

In 2009, a team of German researchers collected sweat from two groups of students, one where the sweat came from exercising on bikes and one where it came from the stress of waiting to give a graded oral presentation.

A third group of students, lying in fMRI scanners and wearing modified oxygen masks, then smelled air odorized by the two groups’ sweat. Asked about what they were smelling, the students didn’t even notice an odor in half of the trials. When they did notice they were smelling something, they were unable to tell the difference between the two sources and rated both as low in intensity, weakly pleasant, unfamiliar, and having no effect on their own emotions.

The brain scans told a very different story, though. After smelling the sweat of the students nervously waiting for their exams, the smellers’ brains showed increased activity in areas that are involved with empathy and processing social signals and the emotional states of other people. The sweat from exercise didn’t cause these same activations, suggesting that the nervous students’ sweat contained some sort of chemical signal of their anxiety that triggered a response in the smellers’ brains without registering as the sensory experience of a smell.

That same year, a pair of psychologists at Rice University collected sweat from different volunteers while they watched horror movies or slapstick comedies, and then asked other volunteers to smell the sweat while they looked at images of faces that switched expressions from happy to ambiguous to fearful. As the faces morphed, the volunteers were asked to indicate whether they thought the expressions were happy or fearful.

The smellers were more likely to judge the ambiguous faces as fearful after being exposed to the the horror watchers’ sweat than when they smelled the comedy watchers’ sweat or a control sweat. That behavioral change suggests that not only did the sweat contain some chemical signal that communicated emotion, but also affected people’s visual perception of emotions and biased them towards the one being communicated by the sweat (that second part is consistent with other findings that emotional cues from faces and voices can regulate each other).

Just last month, Dutch psychologists found evidence that fear-induced sweat not only biases someone who smells it toward seeing fear, but might also push them to feel it themselves. Volunteers either watched scenes from a scary movie or from Jackass, and their sweat was collected. People in another group were then exposed to the smell of one of the sweats while they took a visual test that asked them to find a target object on screens full of different items. While this was going on, the researchers recorded their facial expressions and tracked their eye movements.

The people who got the horror sweat made facial expressions suggesting fear or anxiety shortly after they were exposed to the sweat. The Jackass-sweat smellers, meanwhile, made disgusted faces. (This was determined by comparing their faces to “distinctive facial-muscle signatures” associated with emotions. For more on face reading, check out Paul Ekman and his facial action coding system.) The two sweats also appeared to have affected the smellers’ behavior, with the horror sweat smellers attempting to acquire more sensory information while exposed to the sweat by taking bigger sniffs and scanning more and fixing their gaze less during the visual exercise.

What the Nose Knows

What all this, and a bunch of other studies looking at the same sort of thing, suggests is that humans might not communicate by just sight, sound, and touch. Like other animals, we might also use chemical signals embedded in our sweat, and maybe elsewhere, to let each other know about our emotional states.

That has been a contentious idea for a very long time, with some people claiming “definitive evidence of human pheromones,” and others saying “no, not so fast.” While there’s a good amount of evidence for behavioral and physiological changes in people in response to “chemosignals,” no one has been able to nail down just what the chemicals are that trigger these responses, and how people detect them. The vomeronasal organ, which many animals use to detect pheromones, is present in some humans, but doesn’t appear functional. When scientists can find them in people, the genes that code for their receptors don’t seem to have done their job, and their sensory neurons have little or no connection with the central nervous system.

Those are two very important dots that need to be connected before the line between someone’s sweaty armpit and someone else’s schnoz can be drawn clearly.

Where Did the Term Brownie Points Come From?

bhofack2/iStock via Getty Images
bhofack2/iStock via Getty Images

In a Los Angeles Times column published on March 15, 1951, writer Marvin Miles observed a peculiar phrase spreading throughout his circle of friends and the social scene at large. While standing in an elevator, he overheard the man next to him lamenting “lost brownie points.” Later, in a bar, a friend of Miles's who had stayed out too late said he would never “catch up” on his brownie points.

Miles was perplexed. “What esoteric cult was this that immersed men in pixie mathematics?” he wrote. It was, his colleagues explained, a way of keeping “score” with their spouses, of tallying the goodwill they had accrued with the “little woman.”

Over the decades, the phrase brownie points has become synonymous with currying favor, often with authority figures such as teachers or employers. So where exactly did the term come from, and what happens when you “earn” them?

The most pervasive explanation is that the phrase originated with the Brownies, a subsect of the Girl Scouts who were encouraged to perform good deeds in their communities. The Brownies were often too young to be official Girl Scouts and were sometimes the siblings of older members. Originally called Rosebuds in the UK, they were renamed Brownies when the first troops were being organized in 1916. Sir Robert Baden-Powell, who had formed the Boy Scouts and was asked to name this new Girl Scout division, dubbed them Brownies after the magical creatures of Scottish folklore that materialized to selflessly help with household chores.

But the Brownies are not the only potential source. In the 1930s, kids who signed up to deliver magazines like The Saturday Evening Post and Ladies' Home Journal from Curtis Publishing were eligible for vouchers labeled greenies and brownies that they could redeem for merchandise. They were not explicitly dubbed brownie points, but it’s not hard to imagine kids applying a points system to the brownies they earned.

The term could also have been the result of wartime rationing in the 1940s, where red and brown ration points could be redeemed for meats.

The phrase didn’t really seem to pick up steam until Miles's column was published. In this context, the married men speaking to Miles believed brownie points could be collected by husbands who remembered birthdays and anniversaries, stopped to pick up the dry cleaning, mailed letters, and didn’t spend long nights in pubs speaking to newspaper columnists. The goal, these husbands explained, was never to get ahead; they merely wanted to be considered somewhat respectable in the eyes of their wives.

Later, possibly as a result of its usage in print, grade school students took the phrase to mean an unnecessary devotion to teachers in order to win them over. At a family and faculty meeting at Leon High in Tallahassee, Florida, in 1956, earning brownie points was said to be a serious problem. Also called apple polishing, it prompted other students in class to shame their peers for being friendly to teachers. As a result, some were “reluctant to be civil” for fear they would be harassed for sucking up.

In the decades since that time, the idiom has become attached to any act where goodwill can be expected in return, particularly if it’s from someone in a position to reward the act with good grades or a promotion. As for Miles: the columnist declared his understanding of brownie points came only after a long night of investigation. Arriving home late, he said, rendered him “pointless.”

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

Grocery Stores vs. Supermarkets: What’s the Difference?

gpointstudio/iStock via Getty Images
gpointstudio/iStock via Getty Images

These days, people across the country are constantly engaging in regional term debates like soda versus pop and fireflies versus lightning bugs. Since these inconsistencies are so common, you might have thought the only difference between a grocery store and a supermarket was whether the person who mentioned one was from Ohio or Texas. In reality, there are distinctions between the stores themselves.

To start, grocery stores have been around for much longer than supermarkets. Back when every town had a bakery, a butcher shop, a greengrocery, and more, the grocery store offered townspeople an efficient shopping experience with myriad food products in one place. John Stranger, vice president group supervisor of the food-related creative agency EvansHardy+Young, explained to Reader’s Digest that the grocer would usually collect the goods for the patron, too. This process might sound familiar if you’ve watched old films or television shows, in which characters often just hand over their shopping lists to the person behind the counter. While our grocery store runs may not be quite so personal today, the contents of grocery stores remain relatively similar: Food, drinks, and some household products.

Supermarkets, on the other hand, have taken the idea of a one-stop shop to another level, carrying a much more expansive array of foodstuffs as well as home goods, clothing, baby products, and even appliances. This is where it gets a little tricky—because supermarkets carry many of the same products as superstores, the next biggest fish in the food store chain, which are also sometimes referred to as hypermarkets.

According to The Houston Chronicle, supermarkets and superstores both order inventory in bulk and usually belong to large chains, whereas grocery stores order products on an as-needed basis and are often independently owned. Superstores, however, are significantly larger than either grocery stores or supermarkets, and they typically look more like warehouses. It’s not an exact science, and some people might have conflicting opinions about how to categorize specific stores. For example, Walmart has a line of Walmart Neighborhood Markets, which its website describes as “smaller-footprint option[s] for communities in need of a pharmacy, affordable groceries, and merchandise.” They’re not independently owned, but they do sound like grocery stores, especially compared to Walmart’s everything-under-the-sun superstore model.

Knowing the correct store terms might not always matter in casual conversation, but it could affect your credit card rewards earnings. American Express, for example, offers additional rewards on supermarket purchases, and it has a specific list of stores that qualify as supermarkets, including Gristedes, Shoprite, Stop & Shop, and Whole Foods. Target and Walmart, on the other hand, are both considered superstores, so you won’t earn bonuses on those purchases.

And, since grocery shopping at any type of store can sometimes seem like a competitive sport, here’s the ideal time to go.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER