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.

Why is Friday the 13th Considered Unlucky?

iStock
iStock

Today, people around the globe will feel uneasy about getting out of bed, leaving their homes, or going about their normal daily routines, all because of a superstition. These unfortunate folks suffer from paraskavedekatriaphobia, a common neurosis familiar to us all: the fear of Friday the 13th. But just where did this superstitious association come from, and how did it catch on?

The truth is that no one is absolutely sure where the idea that Friday the 13th is unlucky originated. Donald Dossey, the founder of the Stress Management Center and Phobia Institute in Asheville, North Carolina, suspects the fear can be traced back to a Norse myth about 12 gods who had a dinner at Valhalla—the fabled hall where legendary Norse heroes feasted for eternity after they died—that was interrupted by a 13th guest, the evil and mischievous god Loki.

According to legend, Loki tricked Höðr (the blind god of winter and son of Odin, the supreme god in Norse mythology) into shooting his brother Baldr (the benevolent god of summer who was also a son of Odin) with a magical spear tipped with mistletoe—the only substance that could defeat him. Thus the number 13 was branded as unlucky because of the ominous period of mourning following the loss of such powerful gods by this unwanted 13th guest.

For whatever reason, among many cultures, the number 12 emerged throughout history as a "complete" number: There are 12 months in a year, 12 signs of the zodiac, 12 Gods of Olympus, 12 sons of Odin, 12 labors of Hercules, 12 Jyotirlingas or Hindu shrines where Shiva is worshipped, 12 successors of Muhammad in Shia Islam, and 12 tribes of Israel. In Christianity, Jesus was betrayed by one of his 12 Apostles—Judas—who was the 13th guest to arrive for the Last Supper. Surpassing the number 12 ostensibly unbalances the ideal nature of things; because it is seen as irregular and disrespectful of a sense of perfection, the number 13 bears the stigma of misfortune and bad luck we know today.

WHY FRIDAY?

Friday joins in the mix mostly because all of the early accounts of Jesus’s crucifixion agree that it took place on Friday—the standard day for crucifixions in Rome. As Chaucer noted in The Canterbury Tales, "And on a Friday fell all this mischance." Yet perpetuating Friday as an unlucky day in America came from the late 19th-century American tradition of holding all executions on Fridays; Friday the 13th became the unluckiest of days simply because it combined two distinct superstitions into one. According to the Oxford University Press Dictionary of Superstitions, the first reference to Friday the 13th itself wasn’t until 1913. (So despite actually occurring on Friday, October 13, 1307, the popular notion that the Friday the 13th stigma comes from the date on which the famed order of the Knights Templar were wiped out by King Philip of France is just a coincidence.)

The repercussions of these phobias reverberated through American culture, particularly in the 20th century. Most skyscrapers and hotels lack a 13th floor, which specifically comes from the tendency in the early 1900s for buildings in New York City to omit the unlucky number (though the Empire State Building has a 13th floor). Some street addresses also skip from 12 to 14, while airports may skip the 13th gate. Allegedly, the popular Friday the 13th films were so-named just to cash in on this menacing date recognition, not because the filmmakers actually believed the date to be unlucky.

So, is Friday the 13th actually unlucky? Despite centuries of superstitious behavior, it largely seems like psychological mumbo jumbo. One 1993 study seemed to reveal that, statistically speaking, Friday the 13th is unlucky, but the study's authors told LiveScience that though the data was accurate, "the paper was just a bit of fun and not to be taken seriously." Other studies have shown no correlation between things like increased accidents or injuries and Friday the 13th.

And Friday the 13th isn't a big deal in other cultures, which have their own unlucky days: Greeks and Spanish-speaking countries consider Tuesday the 13th to be the unluckiest day, while Italians steer clear of Friday the 17th. So today, try to rest a little easy—Friday the 13th may not be so unlucky after all.

Additional Source: 13: The Story of the World’s Most Popular Superstition.

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Does the Full Moon Really Make People Act Crazy?

iStock.com/voraorn
iStock.com/voraorn

Along with Mercury in retrograde, the full moon is a pretty popular scapegoat for bad luck and bizarre behavior. Encounter someone acting strangely? Blame it on the lunar phases! It's said that crime rates increase and emergency rooms are much busier during the full moon (though a 2004 study debunked this claim). Plus, there's that whole werewolf thing. Why would this be? The reasoning is that the moon, which affects the ocean's tides, probably exerts a similar effect on us, because the human body is made mostly of water.

This belief that the moon influences behavior is so widely held—reportedly, even 80 percent of nurses and 64 percent of doctors think it's true, according to a 1987 paper published in the Journal of Emergency Medicine [PDF]—that in 2012 a team of researchers at Université Laval's School of Psychology in Canada decided to find out if mental illness and the phases of the moon are linked [PDF].

To test the theory, the researchers evaluated 771 patients who visited emergency rooms at two hospitals in Montreal between March 2005 and April 2008. The patients chosen complained of chest pains, which doctors could not determine a medical cause for the pains. Many of the patients suffered from panic attacks, anxiety and mood disorders, or suicidal thoughts.

When the researchers compared the time of the visits to the phases of the moon, they found that there was no link between the incidence of psychological problems and the four lunar phases, with one exception: in the last lunar quarter, anxiety disorders were 32 percent less frequent. "This may be coincidental or due to factors we did not take into account," Dr. Geneviève Belleville, who directed the team of researchers, said. "But one thing is certain: we observed no full-moon or new-moon effect on psychological problems."

So rest easy (or maybe not): If people seem to act crazy during the full moon, their behavior is likely pretty similar during the rest of the lunar cycle as well.

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