Human Exceptionalism

Humans Can Smell Danger: My Dad Proved It

Scientists have conducted a study indicating that human beings can smell danger. From the story:

Scientists found volunteers who were previously unable to differentiate between two similar scents learnt to tell them apart when given electric shocks alongside just one of them.They said the findings demonstrate how experiences help sharpen our senses to keep us clear of danger…

Lead study author Dr Wen Li, of the Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University, in Chicago, said: “It’s evolutionary. This helps us to have a very sensitive ability to detect something that is important to our survival from an ocean of environmental information. It warns us that it’s dangerous and we have to pay attention to it.

“The ability to discriminate between biologically meaningful cues such as the smell of a 175kg lion and similar but irrelevant stimuli such as the smell of a 3kg cat maximises an organism’s response sensitivity while minimising hyper-vigilant and impulsive behaviours.”

I found this interesting because some of my family history gives anecdotal validation to the concept. My father was a decorated veteran who fought in the Pacific Theater in WW II, primarily in New Guinea. He didn’t talk much about his war experiences, but he did tell me a story that validates this study.

He was leading a patrol when a squad of Japanese soldiers sprang an ambush. It was a terrible fight, and during the battle Dad was knocked unconscious by an explosion. (He turned down a Purple Heart so as to not worry my mother at home.) Thereafter, he swore he was able to tell whenever the Japanese were near and that enabled him to avoid many dangers.

“How could you know?” I asked. “It was a jungle.” He swore he could smell them, and whenever he had that sense, he was always right.

So, I believe the study. It worked for my dad in real life and that amazing ability to “smell” the enemy may well be why he survived the war and indeed, why I am here.