The smell of fear is real, according to a recent account of an experiment, but the finding that fear is contagious because of smell, may lead to weapons of mass disgust. The study, funded by the US Defence Department, might eventually have implications for military and crowd control applications.
Research of this type looks at pheremones, defined by Wikipedia as a “chemical that triggers a natural behavioral response” in others. The assumption is that we emit telltale chemical signals in our aroma and that others sense it and act accordingly.
In addition to fear pheromones, other scents that cue our behavior are far more prevalent than we believe. Recent studies suggest that our nose gives us all kinds of “social” cues, and we follow them without realizing it. For one thing, women who share the same residence may be prone to synchronize their menstrual cycles, and the cues they are using are likely olfactory. Also, mothers can recognize their child by their unique smell (without realizing they rely on it) and there is evidence that there is real chemistry in our decisions about who we think is “hot.”
In the most recent and very interesting DARPA funded research on pheromones is about the smell of fear. Researchers at Stony Brook University have found that when we sweat, while we are in a state of fear, then those within a wiffing range of us can pick up on our fear.
In a study of 40 newbie sky divers, their underarm sweat later triggered, in a second group, a reaction in the area of the brain associated with fear. While they were not aware of being afraid, such a lack of awareness, while raising questions about what really happened, proves little, while raising some questions.
People rarely report any awareness of the effects of pheromones. For example, in another study by Denise Chen, subjects reacted to fear pheromones behaviorally, but again without actual awareness.
I have to say I am spooked by the fact that the defense department is getting a leg up (so to speak) on us, trying to learn how to control us with smells we don’t know are impacting us. At least with WMD, we can imagine we could see it coming.