Ever noticed how some toddlers have fears that seemed to have come from nowhere? Without prior experience to, say, near drowning or having seen a drowning incident, some kids may fear water for no obvious reasons. Some scientists have been perplexed by this phenomenon and decided that merely having heard of stories of these frightening events would not be enough to develop deeply-rooted fears.

The scientists noted that kids of parents who were victims of the Holocaust in World War II often had nightmares about it even without experiencing it firsthand. Simply hearing stories of the event from their parents would not suffice to re-create the same fear in the kids and make it last for a long time. So what the scientists did was conduct an experiment.

Scent and Fear Experiment

Dr. Jacek Debiec, leader of the research team from the University of Michigan that conducted the study featured in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, said their study shows how “infants can learn from maternal expression of fear very early in life,” even if they have not developed their own experiences of it. He added that such transferred experiences are long-lived and transferred by mere smell. [INPOSTLB]

The scent and fear experiment involved mother rats and their babies. Prior to pregnancy, the female rats were given electric shocks as they were exposed to the scent of peppermint until they developed the fear. After pregnancy and giving birth, the scientists again exposed the mother rats to peppermint, this time in the presence of the baby rats. The mother rats displayed fear. Over time, when the baby rats have grown to maturity, the scientists found that they have acquired their mothers’ fear of peppermint scent. They displayed the same fear each time they were exposed to it.

With this experiment, the scientists concluded that mother’s fears can be transferred to their kids, probably through their smell. Infant rats have no way of realizing the dangers in their immediate environment, even if it happened right in front of them. Yet, when they matured, they adopted the same fears their mothers had. It is possible that babies have a way of learning emotions through what their mothers felt.

Lessons from the Study

It is important, then, how mothers feel especially during the infancy and weaning moments of their babies. Mothers should enjoy positive events that elicit positive emotions while their babies are with them. It appears that the mothers’ emotions emit a peculiar scent the babies can smell, which also enables them to adopt the emotion even up to their adulthood.