On the Trails: The smell of fear

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By Mary F. Willson

It’s not an imaginary thing, even though it sometimes pops up in pulp fiction. There is experimental evidence that scared humans can produce volatile chemical signals of distress that can be perceived subconsciously by other humans. That sort of chemical communication in humans shouldn’t be a surprise (although lots more research is needed), given the prevalence of chemical distress signals in other organisms.

There’s even a word for it (at least in fishes) — in German it was called ‘schreckstoff’ (fear-stuff) by the Austrian scientist who discovered it in fish, back in the 1930s. Best known for his work with bees, Karl von Frisch

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