Fear is among the most fundamental elements of human life–the well-known fight or flight response toggle has served us well for millions of years. Animals, too: in recent years scientists have demonstrated that many release chemical combinations signaling fear and distress when they are under duress. The principle was first discovered in 1935 by Nobel Prize-winner Karl von Frisch, who noticed that injured minnows excrete what he called “Schreckstoff” or “fear-stuff” (and which we now call chondroitins) that warned other fish to keep away. Not until this year, however, were scientists were able to isolate this “Schreckstoff” and determine its chemical composition.
Ever since, the list of lifeforms who give off such warning scents has grown to the point where now it has been shown that even some plants behave in this way, releasing chemical alarms that let other plants know that herbivorous foes are in the area. But unlike in the areas of running, jumping, swimming, flying and hearing (just to name a few), where we fail miserably to compare with, respectively, cheetahs, cats, fish, birds and dogs, when it comes to smelling fear, we humans have not been left behind the lower orders. A number of studies, such as one conducted in 2006 at the Baylor College of Medicine, have shown that humans can in fact smell fear in the sweat of other humans. Not only that, but in an odd illustration of evolution doing its job, the smell of fear boosted the smellers’ performance in a number of physical and mental tasks. It seems then that the sages (kung fu and otherwise) were right, and that fear may be embraceable as a factor that, properly mastered, may even help us to achieve our goals. As Mahatma Ghandi famously spoke: “Fear has its use, but cowardice has none.”