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Good Housekeeping
Jennifer Chan, Assistant Managing Editor
April 05, 2012

Fear Heightens Our Sense of Smell, Study Shows

Research shows that anxiety can put our olfactory senses into overdrive. By Jennifer Chan

You might not be aware of it, but according to a study published in the journal Chemosensory Perception, the more afraid you are, the better your sense of smell—at least, when it comes to identifying negative odors. 

It’s probably not the first thing you’ll notice while you’re shaking in your boots, but looking at things from an evolutionary standpoint, it’s probably not such a bad mechanism to have. Some animals, for example, have a particularly strong sense of smell, which then allows them to locate and escape predators. You might not be able to sniff out your predators as accurately as the other members of the animal kingdom, but what your olfactory senses have to offer is not something to scoff at either. 

To test the theory, researchers recruited 14 young adults and exposed them to three different types of smells: neutral pure odor, neutral odor mixture, and negative odor mixture. While they were in a magnetic resonance image scanner, they were then asked to detect the presence or absence of these smells. During the experiment, researchers also observed the skin’s ability to conduct electricity—a measure of arousal level—and their breathing patterns. After the task, the participants were then asked to describe their level of anxiety while researchers obtained brain images.

Results? As the participants reported greater anxiety, their sense of smell was also heightened. Based on the other tests, researchers were able to conclude that fear also heightened emotional arousal to smell-induced threats. The study brings forth certain implications that need further review. At this point, it’s probably safe to say that as far as survival skills go, you’re not exactly in bad shape.

(Photo by dolar via

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Jennifer Chan
Assistant Managing Editor
Jennifer Chan was a contributing writer for Female Network for two years before formally joining the team as a staff writer in July 2012... Read more...
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