Posted in Miscellany

*The Smell of Fear

Scientists have now demonstrated that fear has an odour and we really do react to it. Alexander Prehn-Kristenen and his team put pads under the armpits of students waiting to give an oral presentation and students who were cycling. Both were equally sweaty but what a difference!

Next the researchers scanned the brains of 28 students while the two sources of odour were delivered to their noses using an adapted oxygen mask. Half the time, the students couldn’t even perceive an odour. They were also unable to distinguish between the two odour sources, rating them as equally pleasant. Crucially, however, the participants’ brain responses to the two odours did differ significantly.

The brains of students smelling the sweat of their fearful college mates reacted in the areas of the brain that produce emotion, empathy, portray other people’s mental states, separate self from other. The fact that this occurred even with odours too faint to consciously detect explains why sometimes there is a “whiff of fear” that affects us. (Full story here)

This led me to think about the studies that show that conservatives are more sensitive to disgust than liberals.

As reported here

People who squirm at the sight of bugs or are grossed out by blood and guts are more likely to be politically conservative, new studies find.

There have been other studies that show that the same facial muscles activated in physical disgust are also activated in reactions of moral disgust. (See here).

Clean people are less judgmental.

Conservatives tend to be more tidy.

There seems to be an offsetting behavioural pattern here in which disgust is ameliorated by retaining an environment which is less likely to engage it. Now here is my question: are conservatives more sensitive to fear?

It seems to me that people who react in the exaggerated manner I’ve observed, on everything from same-sex marriage to the weight of the new Surgeon General in the U.S. display a heightened brain response, which is bizarre.

If a clean room can help conservative judgmentalism, maybe air freshener might assist with fear?

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Lilian is the author of Web of Angels, a novel about a mom with DID (multiple personalities). She's also the author of the historical novels, The River Midnight and The Singing Fire, about secrets, friendship and motherhood in 19th century Poland and London.

4 thoughts on “*The Smell of Fear

  1. Gosh, how interesting. I’m having to think about this, as I consider myself a tremendously fearful person, and yet intellectually a revolutionary (or at least on the side of continual reform) and I do try to be always compassionate. The question may be what the individual does to staunch fear. If we feel we can control it, then possibly conservatism results, but if we feel it is inevitable, then maybe our responses are different. Oh quick, run and get the air freshener and see if it makes any difference! đŸ™‚

    1. When doing these studies, it’s all about tendencies rather than absolutes. An individual might be liberal and more sensitive. The studies are also quite crude in what is used. Disgust is monitored in respect to bugs and guts. It would be interesting to conduct studies with more subtle stimuli. Or if you have a gifted imagination, does that conjure up more fearsome possibilities?

  2. Fascinating! But while I don’t think all fearful people are conservative, I am inclined to think all conservative people are at least a little bit fearful…

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