Monday, August 21, 2006

The Smell of Fear

Did you know that there was a real reason your Mom always knew when you were in upset as a child?

According to the journal Chemical Senses , women can detect the smell of fear better than their male counterparts. This is due, in part, to women's hard-wiring in the brain. Being able to sense fear enables the female to protect her babies from danger or soothe them when they were fragile.

It is well documented that animals experiencing stress and fear produce chemical warning signals that are sensed by other animals ~ and now research shows us that humans distinguish between fear and other emotional "chemo-signals" based on the sense of smell.

Of the human senses, smell is perhaps the least appreciated. In fact, a poll demonstrated that the least valued sense people would be most willing to lose -- is smell.

I have a fantastic sense of smell.

Do You?


[1] Synnott, A. (1994). Roses, coffee and lovers: The meanings of smell. In Compendium of Olfactory Research 1982-1994, pp. 117-128.


~Deb said...

My mother always knew when I was upset, or if something was 'off'. She even knows when I'm having anxiety---even when I hide it. She "knows".

Even my dog used to totally know if I was sad. He would sit on my lap, look at me, and lick my face.

Very interesting post.

Dr. A said...

Does that sense go through phones and e-mail, IM, text msgs, and other electronic media? I admit, I'm kind of shy, but maybe that's why my social life is lacking...

Sarebear said...

This post makes alot of sense.

Could you write me one that makes alot of dollars? Teehee.

If your sense of smell goes, there goes a part of your sense of taste, as well. Like when not much tastes as good when you have a cold/stuffed nose.

I'd give up . . . hmm. Maybe sight, before one of the physical sensation senses. Hearing allows me to be more easily connected with others. Smell and taste, well, those are great. Touch, too.

Sarebear said...

Course, I LOVE COLOR.k

drytears said...

There are times when I wish I couldn't smell!! LOL

Hey, maybe this is why my mom keeps asking me if I'm scared to go to college, while I keep denying it... her fear sensor must be picking something up!

As for which one I would give up...

defiently not seeing or hearing

nor touch, because how would be able to do any thing if you couldn't feel it?

So it comes down to smell and taste and I love to eat, so I'd end up giving u my sense of smell.

Deb S. said...

I have a great sense of smell, too. I'm sure my children wish I didn't. :-)

Great topic.

Dreaming Mage said...

There must be other cues as well... my mom can tell when I'm manic or anxious on the phone. She can even spot it on instant messenger. I'm 44 and she is 63, and the connection is still there.


beethoven writes said...

what does fear smell like then?

Dreaming again said...

I have 2 teenaged boys that I sincerely wish I could not smell sometimes ;)

I seem to be keenly cued into their emotions. The oldest one acts like it bothers him ...then tells his friends the best thing about me is that I always know what's going on with him even when he doesn't tell me. He tells his friends that "my mom's heart has eyes"

never thought about fear having smell for me to be able to pick up ...hmmmm interesting. Quite interesting. This is another secret I won't share with him. It's better to keep him guessing. ;)

wolfbaby said...

LOL it isn't just your own kids.. my niecie girl freaks cause i can read her like a book.. kinda weird actually.. i say it's the mom part of me she says but you could do it before you were a mom.. *grin* i say i was just practicing.. ROLF...

Flea said...

There's the end-organ, and then there's the processing of the sensory inputs.

I'm sure I distinguish among scents as well as anybody. What I completely lack is the ability to name what I'm tasting without visual or tangible clues.

My wife tortures me with this. She knows I hate lemon, so she sneaks lemon into food she makes and with a devilish grin asks me "Guess what's in this?"



bonnie said...

I don't know where this quote came from but to me it sums up what a mother "knows" about her children. "Mothers smell blood before the wound is struck. We see the rent place on the child's arm before the arrow strikes." And... I have an excellent sense of smell. It amazes my husband.

Dawn said...

not right now i dont(sick). but, yeah, i can smell pretty well. i always knew that animals could sense fear, but humans-well, that i did not know. i learn so much here :)

mysti said...

Oh wow very interesting. It makes sense though. I know instantly when my sons are afraid. Now I understand why!

Traci said...

Somehow I always knew this. Thanks Deb.

Miranda said...

Good post, I think there it's a connection. NOt only fear, but pain and happiness. I feel for my child for each emotion they go through. When they are hurt, I feel the pain. If its some one thats caused it I want to play momma bear. When they laugh I laugh, when they cry I cry. Worst off when they stress, I stress. That is something I have to work on, especially with my younger one. She has yet alot of growing up to do, so she will make mistakes, which is hard to have to watch. But I guess thats what parents are suppose to do.

Godwhacker said...

Hi Deb,
I think it was Tina Weymouth (Bass player for the Talking Heads) who said "Body oder is the window to the soul".

I have some mild sinus problems and my sense of smell alternates between "wolf-like" and nonexistent. Sometimes, I am more pleased with the later.

Also, I wonder how sense of smell affects sexuality. I find the smell of a man more arousing then the smell of a woman, but is it the sense that dictates attraction, or the attraction that dictates sense?

J.D. said...

Oh my God, Deb! I LOVE this information!! *hmmm....ideas sparking...*
I have worked hard over the years, to eliviate my free floatiing anxiety & fears, in order for fear to "work" for me properly. Does that make any sense to you? I believe fear serves a purpose, that often is overcome by our wounds.
*hmmm....yes, something percolating for a new piece*
Thank you for that, my dear.

Fallen Angels said...

I am allergic to bee stings and because of this terribly afraid of them. Guess who the bees seem to always want to buzz around, follow and even dive bomb in a group of people!?! It has to be the smell of fear they are attracted to. My mother could definitely sense fear in me...this led to teasing if she was in a good mood and outright ridicule if she wasn't. I used to think she was just a mean person, but now I think maybe she could smell it, and was a mean person!


PalmTreeChick said...

Ooh, I would hate to lose my sense of smell. My parents always tell me that I have an "Overactive sniffer" because I smell even the slightest bit of something. I can smell everything so I would hate to lose it.

that was an interesting post.

Aurora said...

very interesting. I have been able to smell sickness in others, but never noticed smelling fear in others.

your blog has a lot of good information on in Dr. Deb. thank you.

Christine said...

I have 3 teenaged boys, I could only hope to lose my sense of smell when I walk past their rows of shoes.

I have always thought that if I lost my sense of taste it would solve my overeating problem. I don't eat because of stress, I just eat too much because it tastes so good :)

Nancy said...

my mother always knew when something was wrong with her 6 kids and i could never figure it out, now i too can tell if my kids are upset or something is not right.
I haven't slept in two days worrying about my son who chose to enroll in a military regimented college......he is gone for two weeks and we can have no contact at all. I have 12 more days to worry and not sleep.
once again agree with your post, you always find interesting topics

Dr. Deborah Serani said...

My cat can sense my down moods too. Animals are amazing that way.

Dear Dr. A.
I believe that attunement is very keen for some people... so why not?

Dear Sarebear,
YOu are so punny.

Dear Drytears,
I think I'd give up smell too.

Dear Deb,
LOL, my family wishes I didn't too :)

Dear Dreaming MAge,
There are many cues that tip off others senses....I agree.

Dear Theinjuredcyclist,
I guess THAT'S the next research question! Must be something phermone-like.

Dear Dreaming Again,
"My Mom's Heart Has Eyes" - how beautiful.

Dear Wolfbaby,
Your comment made me lol!

Dear Flea,
That is soooooo funny that your wife does that. She has a great sense of humor. I tend to find a lot of men who say the same thing. Maybe it's the hardwiring sex-difference.

Dear Bonnie,
I had never heard that quote. Wow, it is very poignant.

Dear Dawn,
My pets have ALWAYS been a source of comfort when I'm down or out of sorts. It's nice to know that you get that comfort too from your furkids.

Dear Mysti,
I find research interesting, especially things that have to do with our senses.

Dear Traci,
You are such a smarty ;)

Dear Miranda,
I think it is an amazing experience when parent and child forge a bond. I love how research lets us understand certain aspects of how we nuture and care for each other.

Dear Godwhacker,
Get outta here, she said that. That's hilarious. Love the Talking Heads. Saw David Byrne a few years ago in a museum and was starstruck. As for sexuality, I'm not sure how experiences are linked, but I strongly feel that biology plays a role in who we find attractive. So much of who we are is nature AND nurture.

Dear J.D.
Wow, how cool for me to be part of your creative process. And yes, you make perfect sense.

Dear Fallen,
I think that as technology grows, so will some of the answers to these questions. A similar thing happens to me, though with big dogs. I'm afraid of big dogs, and while I am shy and tend to keep to myself, they inevitably find me!

Dear PAlmtreechick,
I have such a keen sense of smell that I can tell what my hubby had for lunch or where the kids were playing in the neighborhood.

Dear Aurora,
Thanks for coming and sharing. Please visit again.

Dear Christine,

Dear Nancy,
Wow, your mom had a keen and active sense about her. I hope that the time flies so you can hear soon from your son. It is hard when they leave the nest. I bet you raised him verrrrrry well.


Wendy C. said...

I deeply appreciate my sense of smell. Sometimes, when I feel completely overwhelmed by life, and my other senses seem to kind of shut down, my sense of smell gets even stronger. I find it deeply comforting to, literally, stop and smell the roses, or my husbands coat, or cookies...freshly ground coffee...comforting scents that never argue back or ask anything of me... just linger quietly.

CrackerLilo said...

REM has a song lyric that goes "Aluminum tastes like fear," based on this idea, that fear has its own sharp metallic taste and smell.

I completely believe this.

L'Ailee is part-bloodhound, I think. She smells it!

Moof said...

I never attributed it to smell, but I've certainly always known when my babies were upset ... and I still know now that they're adults.

Great post, Dr. Serani! Thank you!

Sunnie Dee said...

Interesting post deb. My mother used to have sense of smell. She couldn't smell anything really unless it was right under her nose. I have always remembered when I broke my arm, and we were supposed to be flying to italy the following day. I was more scared about mum getting mad about that then I was about the pain. She found out later that night when my sister showed her my arm which was badly swollen. If my sister hadn't made me show her mum wouldn't have had a clue until I was in so much pain I couldn't cover it anymore

Ian Lidster said...

It has always been my experience that females have a much keener olfactory sense than males, and that both fragrances and noxious smells will affect them more quickly than they will males. Is there a gender specificity in this, Deb? Just curious, and thought you might know.


Todd and in Charge said...

Great post. Reminds me of Wolf, the Jack Nicholson remake of the werewolf story, where he goes from being a meek book editor to a Trump-like business success, gets the girl etc., all based on a superenhanced sense of smell. Of course he overdoes it a bit by the end....

healthpsych said...

I've always put that down to gut instinct but, maybe, the real mechanism was higher up!

I think I have a poor sense of smell. The only time I've really noticed it (and not necessarily appreciated it) was when I was pregnant. Suddenly, my sense of smell became almost superhuman!

jumpinginpuddles said...

sometimes i think you can also taste fear and danger not just smell it its like some metallic taste in the mouth that rises so your tongue feels like its swelling. Well thats what its like for me anyway.

Marj aka Thriver said...

I also have a fantastic sense of smell. This came in handy when I was a restaurant critic in Chicago. I could easily identify specific herbs in dishes even before tasting them. When there's an obnoxious smell, however, I'm not so glad I have this gift!

Godwhacker said...

Hi Deb,
I saw David Byrne at "The Cameo Theater", a windowless deco theater on Miami Beach back in the early 1990's. He was touring with a top-notch samba band. Soon after the concert started, I (everyone) noticed that the air-conditioner was broken. The temperature quickly climbed over 100 degrees, but he band played on. Talk about smells, there must have been over 1000 people, in close quarters, but the heat seemed to play off of the hot latin flavor of the music. It was on of the best concerts I've ever seen. I left so drenched in perspiration, I looked as if I had fallen into a swimming-pool.

dragonflyfilly said...

yep, i believe this! -- long ago i realized that, and i explained this to a friend of mine, when i go to the PNE i am inclined to panic attacks and i attribute it to the "smell" of the crowd...the hawkers selling their cheap wares, the excitement of the people as they line up for the scary occurred to me that i was picking up on their fear and "reacting" to it with my own fear, and i later learned about fermones and so this self-realization made perfect sense (ops, pardon the pun!) i have what i call a very priminative, as in primal, sense of smell; i.e. acute: i can detect and differentiate smells from a mile away. Sometimes it is very disconcerting, sometimes it is extremely helpful and entertaining. But i only go to the PNE with people who are taller than me and who understand that when i have to withdraw, not to question me. My very very good/long-time friend knows how to "keep me grounded"...more and more people are learning the importance of this "primative instinct, thanks for this great Post, i feel really validated.

A Flowered Purse said...

I really have the mom senses. I can smell and my hearing also. I can hear one thing and my husband is like, it was nothing. I can tell you exactly what it is from hearing it. Very strong mothers intuition here.
Have a wonderful day Dr. Deb

Hope said...

I have been interested in "smell" for many years, since first studying aroma therapy.
I find scents often evoke my strongest memories as well.... I smell dill, I can imagine being in my grannies kitchen and being 5 years old.
This is very intersting.

Andrew said...

My wife's sense of smell is VASTLY superior to my own, which usually shows up when we've been away for a day or two and she can smell something not quite right upon our arrival home, when everything seems just fine to me.

Belizegial said...

When I went through a very stressful period in my life, I lost my sense of smell completely. I later found out that this is quite often a side effect of stress and unhappiness where you literally can't breathe in deeply enough to pick up smells.

Dr. Deborah Serani said...

Dear Wendy,
I like many of those scents too.

Dear Crackerlilo,
I never heard of that REM song. I gotta check it out. Maybe on itunes.

Dear Moof,
Thanks. I'll be by to visit you soon.

Dear Sunnie,
Hmmm....guess her awareness was not as keen as you or I would've liked it to have been.

Dear Ian,
I think there must be a genetic piece to that too.

Dear Todd,
What a great point. I enjoyed that movie.

Dear Healthpsych,
My sense of smell intensified even more with pregnancy too. There were places I could not go to because I'd heave from the scents. Amazing how our bodies work!

Dear JIP,

Dear MArj,
What a gift it was to have as a food critic.

Dear Godwhacker,
What an amazing time you must have had. And what a sense-sational experience --- sights, sounds, smells, tastes. Wow.

Dear Dragonfly,
I have worked with many people who have said that smell triggered panic. So glad that you feel validated.

Dear Dianna,
I also have keen hearing too. Everything about my senses is keen except for my eyes. I love your term " the mom senses".

Dear Hope,
I have a smiliar experience with scents too. Some good, some bad. The sense of smell can evoke most powerful reactions.

Dear Andrew,
That's funny. I have that same reaction when we arrive home after a vacation too. Must be gender specific.

Dear Belizegial,
YEs, it is true that can happen. I am so glad that you can smell the roses again.



Rose said...

I think we all have overstimulated senses when something is wrong with our love ones. My husband knows something is wrong before it happens. Twice he stopped something from occurring because he felt something was wrong. My mother is the same way. I just get sad when I start feeling something is off balance. But get this..I know when it is going to rain or storm by watching my dog. She shivers and becomes terrified. There's something intermal about all of us that triggers our emotions, thoughts and actions that causes us to deal with things..

Dr. Deborah Serani said...

Dear Rose,
I find how our body and perception works to be so amazing. Sounds like you and your family have very keen senses!

Happy weekend to you,

urban butterfly said...

Wow...thats so interesting!!!

Dr. Deborah Serani said...

Dear Urban,
I thought so too.


Meow said...

Hmmm, my mum always knew when I was lying, or had done something wrong. She must have a brilliant sense of smell !!
Thanks for sharing, very interesting.
Take care, Meow

for_the_lonely said...

Jenny says that she can smell fear on people..that it is almost a "musky" smell. I wish that I had that sense! Instead, I am more empathetic towards individuals..I have a keen sense of what others are feeling emotionally.

Thank you for sharing this! This is a neat read!

Hugs to you,

That Girl said...

I have hardly any sense of smell (both before during and after the smoking years). I always assumed that something was messed up in that area because I have very little sense of taste either (or too much depending on who you believe)