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Fear-Produced Warning Signals Improve Cognitive Performance
Fear: It’s sure to make you think.
and accuracy of participants’ results
Ultrasmall a Big Deal
on the word-association tests. When
That’s the news from a Rice study into
processing meaningfully related
the cognitive performance and the
word pairs, the participants exposed
chemical warning signals produced
to the fear chemicals were 85 per-
by fear. Women who were exposed to
cent accurate, while those in either
chemicals from fear-induced sweat per-
the neutral sweat or the control (no-
formed more accurately on word-asso-
sweat) condition were 80 percent
ciation tasks than did women exposed
accurate. “This is a statistically sig-
to chemicals from other types of sweat
nificant difference,” Chen notes.
or no sweat at all.
Interestingly, when processing
“It is well documented in research
word pairs that were ambiguous in
literature that animals experiencing
threat content, such as one neutral
stress and fear produce chemical warn-
word paired with a threatening word
ing signals that can lead to behavioral,
or a pair of neutral words, subjects
endocrinological, and immunological
in the fear condition were 15 to 16
changes in their fellow animals of the
percent slower in responding than
same species,” says Denise Chen, as-
those in the neutral sweat condition.
sistant professor of psychology at Rice
Chen’s theory is that the chemicals
and principal investigator in the study.
from fear-induced sweat prompted
“We wanted to see if this applies to
subjects to be more cautious.
humans as well.”
“We demonstrated that, in hu-
For the study, Chen collected sam-
mans, chemical signals from fear
ples of sweat from research volunteers
Ian Hamilton ’09
facilitated overall accuracy in iden-
who kept gauze pads in their armpits
tifying word relatedness indepen-
while they watched videos of horror
When Ian Hamilton ’09 was attending high school
dent of the perceived qualities of
movies and nonthreatening documen-
the smells,” Chen says. “The effect
in Centennial, Colorado, he developed an interest in
taries. The sweat samples were then
may arise from a learned association,
nanotechnology—science and engineering fields that
stored in a freezer until needed for the
including greater cautiousness and
revolve around the design and control of systems on the
changes in cognitive strategies.”
Next, Chen had 75 female students ultrasmall scale. This fascination led him to an important
“Human olfaction is a young, vi-
between the ages of 18 and 22 respond
brant field,” Chen says, noting that
discovery: Rice University.
to word-association tests. Some of the
the behavioral study of this subject is Hamilton, a sophomore chemical engineering major
words were associated with threaten-
still in the early stage. “Olfactory re-
ing or fear-related topics, like weapons.
and resident of Martel College, wanted an opportunity to
ceptors were discovered in the early
During the tests, each participant had a merge the fields of bioengineering, chemical engineering,
1990s. We now know that olfaction
piece of gauze attached above her lips
involves hundreds of receptors.”
physics, chemistry, and mechanical engineering to build
so that she was exposed to either chem-
The study, coauthored by Ameeta
icals from sweat or none at all. The
machines on a molecular scale. “When I read about
Katdare ’04 and Nadia Lucas ’05, a
research participants were not aware of
these things online,” he recalls, “the sites commonly
Rice Century Scholar, was published
the nature of the smells, and the smells
in the journal Chemical Senses. The
mentioned Rice.”
did not differ on the intensity or pleas-
research was funded by the National
After he was awarded the Loewenstern Scholarship in
antness ratings.
Institutes of Health.
Chen then compared how the chem-
Engineering and the Max F. Roy Scholarship, Hamilton
—B. J. almond
icals from the sweat impacted the speed chose Rice over a handful of other elite institutions.
“Caltech accepted me, and until my folder from Rice
came with a simple sheet of paper proclaiming my freedom
from tuition, I was almost certain to go there instead,”
receptors were
he says. “But the scholarship clinched it. It made me
discovered in
feel like Rice wasn’t just accepting me but that it really
the early 1990s.
wanted me. To have a school as good as Rice offering
that kind of support was a big deal.”
We now know
that olfaction
hundreds of
rice university

office of Development

ms 81
P.o. Box 1892

houston, TX 77251-1892
—Denise chen
fall ’06 9
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