Dec
05
2008

I can smell you, I’m getting a little freaked out, I’m assuming you can now smell me.

Oh, it will make sense: And you should be ashamed.
Oh, it will make sense: And you should be ashamed.Courtesy wwhyte1968
We’re stuck in a deadly cycle Buzzketeers! We need to separate, take some deep breaths, and shower. Well, I won’t shower, because I don’t bathe with water, but I’ll at least rub myself down with powdered bleach.

Ooooh, but how are we even supposed to get that far? I feel like we’re surrounded by spiders! Oh, this is weird. I am positively terrified.

How is this happening? Well, first we have to understand, Buzzketeers, that we have a connection, you and I. Sure, we’re separated by miles and computer monitors, but the fact remains: there’s a special bond between us. We’re so close that, against all the laws of nature, we are somehow able to smell each other. Open your nostrils and smell… y’all smell like cornnuts and Axe body spray, and I smell like powdered bleach, and… there’s something else… there it is: fear!

Someone in our Science Buzz hive lost their nerve, became afraid, and now the fear has infected the rest of us. It’s a literally horrifying feedback loop.

What’s that I hear? (If I can smell you, then naturally I can hear you too.) “That’s crazy talk, JGordon!”

Yeah, maybe some of it is crazy talk, but not all of it; new research shows that fear not only stinks, but it also may be contagious.

The methods used in the research, I think, are hilarious. (If, by the way, I seem less afraid now, it’s only because I medicated myself heavily over the course of the last two sentences. The fear is still there.) Researchers at Stony Brook University in New York taped absorbent pads to the armpits of 40 first-time skydivers, and collected the sweat they excreted during their jumps.

The researchers then took a second group of volunteers, wired their heads up to, like, brain monitoring machines (what—do I look like a scientist?), and had them breath in the skydiver’s sweat, along with some boring ol’ normal sweat.

The skydiver sweat provoked noticeably increased activity in the fear-centers of the volunteers’ brains (the amygdala and the hypothalamus). While similar studies done in the past have shown that people can often distinguished between calm sweat and stressed sweat, the volunteers in this study were not able to tell the sweat samples apart, nor were they even told the purpose of the experiment.

The results reinforce the idea that there may be “a biological component to human social dynamics”—that is, if one person is frightened (or similarly stressed), their body may give off chemical signals that affect the stress levels of other people nearby, even if these others aren’t directly exposed to whatever was causing the fear in the first place.

For example, one of you out there in Buzzspace is afraid, and it’s driving the rest of us up that wall. I’m doing better now, thanks to some powdered dolphin teeth (it’s tremendously calming for me, and most of the side effects fall on the dolphin itself). So who is it? What is it? Let me throw some stuff out there, see if I can get a response: Yeah, you’re going to need some fungicide for that… No, it wasn’t a dream—better not show face in the cafeteria for a while… Uh huh, your grandma totally knows. No hiding something like that from Gramgram… Yes, that’s poisonous to cats…

There! Did you guys smell that? Someone out there has either accidentally poisoned a cat, or has consumed cat poison, and doesn’t understand the term “a cat person.” Well cut it out! The cat is beyond your help. Or, in the latter case, you have nothing to worry about, unless the cat poison was arsenic, which is also people poison. Go take a shower and some dolphin teeth, because you’re giving us the willies.

That’s better. Back to the story. It has been speculated that research like this could be used for some sort of weapons technology (something that wouldn’t hurt you, but would just make you terrified), and it doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence that the study was funded by DARPA, the Pentagon’s military research wing. DARPA, however, has more or less stated, “that’s cool, but we’re not really into that.” (They’re more interesting in things like flaming death balls, maybe.) Scientists have pointed out, too, that it’s not necessarily enough to simply give someone a physiological cue to make them scared—a “fear smell” might prompt physical symptoms of fear in people, but they really need to actually be in a frightening situation to be scared-scared. That seems like a strange distinction, but there you go.

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