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THURSDAY, JANUARY 06, 2011
 
Our bodies speak to one another in airborne chemical signals that bypass our conscious brains. In BLONDES I fixate on this truth, detailing studies that have shown exactly how these chemicals, called sex pheromones, can trigger sexual attraction. Some studies show that sex pheromones have a marked effect on behavior -- potentially making women more receptive, upbeat, and attracted (in the case of androstadienone-related odors) and men more drawn to the body odors of a woman when she's most likely to conceive (in the case of estrogen-related odors).

And now a news flash: sex pheromones aren't the only types of pheromones that may affect human behavior. There are also alarm pheromones - chemical signals, like fear gas, that make a person more alert, more on edge. Stony Brook University neurobiologist Lilianne Mujica-Parodi and her colleagues taped absorbent pads into the armpits of 144 first-time skydivers, collecting their fear sweat before and during a 13,000-foot free-fall jump. Then the research team enlisted another set of volunteers to smell either a.) the skydivers' sweaty pads (fear sweat); or b.) pads worn by sweaty subjects who had simply been working out (exercise sweat), while having their brains scanned by fMRI. Although participants rated fear sweat and exercise sweat as having a similar intensity, their brains responded to the two sets of sweats in a dramatically different way. It turned out that fear sweat -- and only fear sweat -- triggered activity in the left amygdala, the region of the brain associated with fear. When shown pictures of faces with expressions that ranged from happy to furious, and asked to identify the expression, people exposed to fear sweat were more accurate when distinguishing between angry and neutral expressions. A chemical component of the sweat, it appears, put them on their guard. The researchers call it "second-hand stress."

None of this is surprising to biologists because other animals, even mammals, use alarm pheromones all the time. Inhaling alarm pheromones, rats and deer, for example, sniff and pace around, unable to let down their guard.

I'm intrigued by this. Alarm pheromones are a hidden biological component of our survival as social animals. Anywhere people are stressed or scared -- exam rooms, hospitals, interrogation chambers, battlefields, trading floors, sports matches -- there's a residue in the air. Call it an ambient emotion. Call it emotional infection. Call it evolutionary hardwiring that primes us to act when there's danger. Are some of us more sensitive to it than others? Probably. And its effect on behavior is no doubt context-dependent. I'd like to see more studies, a bigger <em>n</em>, and more distinction between genders.

Like many writer types, I'm hyper-sensitive to the emotions of others, sometimes to the detriment of my psychological well-being. If you're scared, I worry. My guard goes up, too. Block my my olfactory system, the odor processing region where alarm pheromones may be processed -- and would I be less sensitive to your stress?
Comments

Alamir

Alamir

It's great to see another science writer on the site and welcome to WordArc. I found it interesting that you were writing about ambient residue smells in fear. You listed some of the natural occurances of the "ambient emotion" as you call it. And the natural occurances, such as in the hospital or in battle, are generally positive in that they benefit the individuals.

However, you should also mention that there are some occurances in ambient emotion smells that are unnatural. This scientific study found that smells from the bakery or perfumes made people more friendly or sociable in shopping malls. Social gestures such as making change for a dollar or picking up a dropped item increased with pleasant smells. You mentioned that you were interesting in how the ambient smells affected genders differently, and the study mentions there's an increase of friendliness among people of the same sex. However, some of the pleasant smells are being artificially injected in the atmosphere in shopping malls. This is why I call such smells as unnatural. Furthermore, despite the fact that they increase positive behavious I'd also argue that unlike the natural occurances of ambient emotion smells they are not truly beneficial. Although the short term gain of people acting friendly with each other may be beneficial to society, the long-term goal is for people to spend more time in malls and buying more items than they would have had such smells not existed.
REPLIES: Hogan, porcelainkitty

Hogan

Hogan

Replying to Alamir:
Speaking of unconscious smelling, and unnaturalness, I recently heard about a study on how women are attracted to men who, through the sense of smell and by pheromones, are, not surprisingly, different from the women in genetic make-up. Good to mate with someone with a more distant gene pool, rather than that of a close relative, obviously. Inbreeding rarely leads to healthy or good-looking offspring (just compare the Royal Family with mixed-race children).

In the study, though, the researchers found that women who were on the pill couldn't discriminate as well between genetically similar men and genetically distant ones, and ended up choosing more closely related men than women who were not on the pill. Perhaps not shocking results, but worth knowing, I guess.

Hogan

Hogan

Oh, and as I check out the link you provide to the "BLONDES" book, I see that the first sub-subtitle question on the cover is, "Does going on The Pill change your taste in men?"

I guess I was on the right track.
REPLIES: porcelainkitty

porcelainkitty

PORCELAINKITTY

Replying to Alamir:
Hi, Alamir, thanks for your kind welcome and I'm sorry for the delayed response. No excuse except I was using another computer over the holidays and lost new bookmarks/passwords. Yes, I'm also very interested in "social smells" and how marketers use them to manipulate consumers. Lemons, green apple, cinnamon -- all seem to have a subconscious effect...But I'm particularly interested in body odors. Will post another blog today.

porcelainkitty

PORCELAINKITTY

Replying to Hogan:
Hi, Hogan -- many thanks for reading the blog. Yes, I've seen many studies now that indicate the Pill reverses women's normal preferences....All very interesting....



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