Public Release: 

The smell of death can trigger fight or flight in humans

University of Kent

New research from a team led by a psychologist at the University of Kent suggests that humans, like other species, can perceive certain scents as threatening.

Dr Arnaud Wisman, of the University's School of Psychology, found that putrescine, the chemical produced by decaying tissue of dead bodies, can produce a fight-or-flight response in humans.

In four different experiments, people were exposed consciously and non-consciously to putrescine.

The results, published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, show that putrescine can serve as a (non-conscious) signal that initiates threat management responses. The researchers found that even brief exposure to putrescine increases vigilance, followed by the readiness to either escape (flight), or engage in aggressive readiness (fight) when escape is not possible.

These are the first results to show that a scent emanating from a specific chemical compound (putrescine) can be processed as a threat signal. So far, nearly all the evidence for threat chemosignals has come from those that are transmitted by body sweat.

The researchers also believe their study as being among the first to show that a specific chemical compound can cause overt behaviour change in humans.

One of the outcomes of isolating putrescine in threat management processes is that it may help in determining which sensory and brain pathways are involved in chemosensory threat detection and processing.

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The research, entitled The smell of death: evidence that putrescine elicits threat management mechanisms, was carried out by Dr Wisman and Dr Ilan Shrira, of the Department of Behavioral Sciences, Arkansas Tech University, USA. It was published in the online journal Frontiers in Psychology. See: http://journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01274/full#h10

For further information or interview requests contact Martin Herrema at the University of Kent Press Office.

Tel: 01227 823581/01634 888879
Email: M.J.Herrema@kent.ac.uk
News releases can also be found at http://www.kent.ac.uk/news
University of Kent on Twitter: http://twitter.com/UniKent

Note to editors

Established in 1965, the University of Kent - the UK's European university - now has almost 20,000 students across campuses or study centres at Canterbury, Medway, Tonbridge, Brussels, Paris, Athens and Rome.

It has been ranked: third for overall student satisfaction in the 2014 National Student Survey; 16th in the Guardian University Guide 2016; 23rd in the Times and Sunday Times University Guide 2016; and 22nd in the Complete University Guide 2015.

In the Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings 2015-16, Kent is in the top 10% of the world's leading universities for international outlook.

Kent is ranked 17th in the UK for research intensity (REF 2014). It has world-leading research in all subjects and 97% of its research is deemed by the REF to be of international quality.

Along with the universities of East Anglia and Essex, Kent is a member of the Eastern Arc Research Consortium.

The University is worth £0.7 billion to the economy of the south east and supports more than 7,800 jobs in the region. Student off-campus spend contributes £293.3m and 2,532 full-time-equivalent jobs to those totals.

In 2014, Kent received its second Queen's Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education.

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