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. 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
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
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,”
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