Rapid stress system drives chemical transfer of fear from sender to receiver

Jasper H B De Groot, Monique A M Smeets, Gün R. Semin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Humans can register another person's fear not only with their eyes and ears, but also with their nose. Previous research has demonstrated that exposure to body odors from fearful individuals elicited implicit fear in others. The odor of fearful individuals appears to have a distinctive signature that can be produced relatively rapidly, driven by a physiological mechanism that has remained unexplored in earlier research. The apocrine sweat glands in the armpit that are responsible for chemosignal production contain receptors for adrenalin. We therefore expected that the release of adrenalin through activation of the rapid stress response system (i.e., the sympathetic-adrenal medullary system) is what drives the release of fear sweat, as opposed to activation of the slower stress response system (i.e., hypothal-amus- pituitary-adrenal axis). To test this assumption, sweat was sampled while eight participants prepared for a speech. Participants had higher heart rates and produced more armpit sweat in the fast stress condition, compared to baseline and the slow stress condition. Importantly, exposure to sweat from participants in the fast stress condition induced in receivers (N = 31) a simulacrum of the state of the sender, evidenced by the emergence of a fearful facial expression (facial electromyography) and vigilant behavior (i.e., faster classification of emotional facial expressions).

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0118211
JournalPLoS One
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 27 Feb 2015


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