Hilarious Journal Articles #47: Scent of Fear Improves Cognitive Performance
Chemosignals of Fear Enhance Cognitive Performance in Humans -- Chen et al., 10.1093/chemse/bjj046 -- Chemical Senses
It is well documented across phyla that animals experiencing stress and fear produce chemical warning signals that can lead to behavioral, endocrinological, and immunological changes in the recipient animals of the same species. Humans distinguish between fear and other emotional chemosignals based on olfactory cues. Here, we study the effect of human fear chemosignals on the speed and accuracy of cognitive performance. In a double-blind experiment, female participants performed a word-association task while smelling one of the three types of olfactory stimuli: fear sweat, neutral sweat, and control odor carrier. We found that the participants exposed to the fear condition performed more accurately and yet with no sacrifice for speed on meaningful word conditions than those under either the neutral or the control condition. At the same time, they performed slower on tasks that contained ambiguous content. Possible factors that could introduce bias, such as individual differences due to anxiety, verbal skills, and perceived qualities of the smells, were ruled out. Our results demonstrate that human fear chemosignals enhance cognitive performances in the recipient. We suggest that this effect originates from learned associations, including greater cautiousness and concomitant changes in cognitive strategies.Via EurekAlert:
For the study, Chen collected samples of sweat from research volunteers who kept gauze pads in their armpits while they watched videos of horror movies and nonthreatening documentaries. The sweat samples were then stored in a freezer until needed for the study...
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