By David Hambling
January 18, 2008
American military researchers are working to uncover and harness the most terrifying chemical imaginable: that most primal odor, the scent of fear.
Pheromones are chemicals released by animals as signals to their own kind: for sex, for territorial marking, and more. They’re often detected in the olfactory membranes. But there’s more to pheromones than attraction. Many animals have an alarm pheromone which is used to signal danger; aphids, for example, use it to cause their fellow lice to flee.
Now, the US Army is trying to track down and harness people’s smell of fear. The military has backed a study on the “Identification and Isolation of Human Alarm Pheromones,” which “focused on the Preliminary Identification of Steroids of Interest in Human Fear Sweat.” The so-called “skydiving protocol” was the researchers’ method of choice.
Some have suggested that the human alarm pheromone could lead to chemical fear-sensors. The project Integrated System for Emotional State Recognition for the Enhancement of Human Performance and Detection of Criminal Intent (do they call it ISESREHPDCI for short?) specifically mentions the possibility of monitoring pheromone levels:
Such systems could be used to assess fitness for duty, integrated into closed loop systems regulating user vigilance and workload, or used to detect the sinister intent of individuals and prompt pre-emptive interdictions. These systems could unobtrusively monitor individuals within military operational environments or crowded civilian settings by relying on passive detection.
If they’re trying to spot terrorists at an airport, it may not work: I know a number of people whose fear levels when approaching a flight would overload any fear sensor for miles. The suicide bombers are probably way calmer.
But what about offensive use? Pheromones are effective in minute quantities, so a wide area can be blanketed with just a few liters. Given sufficient concentration, would everyone exposed start suffering from an unidentifiable dread? The contagious aspect means that those affected would start churning out fear pheromone as well.