Stefan Pociask:

All too often, some interpret the phrase “They can sense your fear” as something telepathic, some additional non-human sense, or something that is not understood. That, of course, is not it at all. Animals sense fear in others by just using various combinations of the five senses that we are all already familiar with.

Most everyone knows that the majority of vertebrates have at least one sense, if not more, that is more developed and stronger than what humans possess. The nose of a bloodhound, the eyes of an eagle, the ears of an owl, etc. (our sense of taste ranks about average, and our sense of touch is better than most).

In any case, it shouldn’t be surprising that animals can use those heightened senses to sense fear in other animals. No “sixth sense” is required. Actually, only various combinations of three are required: smell, sight, and hearing. I think we can all agree that, if it gets down to an animal tasting your fear or touching your fear, it’s already too late for you, or the prey in question, in any case.

That’s not to say that there are not more than our five senses. Take the sense of navigation in animals like pigeons and other birds; we don’t have that. There’s the sense of echolocation, found in certain bats and whales; we don’t have that, either. Nor the sense related to electroreception, in sharks and other fish. There are several others, scattered about the animal kingdom.

Having said all that … the most brave, fearless, aggressive bunny in the world is still going to feel the jaws of that fox or coyote crush his body, if the predator gets close enough. The fearless dodo bird was still regularly scooped up by sailors and other predators (that being one of the few higher animals who never developed the “fight or flight” response).

The ability to either sense fear or project fear plays a large part in the predator/prey relationship. For a human, not projecting fear won’t necessarily save you from being jumped by that cougar, nor being trampled by that bull elephant, but it might increase your chances of surviving. On the other hand, projecting fear in those situations will almost certainly decrease your chances of surviving. Your adversary in situations like that will surely be using its basic senses (sight, smell, and hearing) to determine its next course of action, in regards to you.

The “other animals” are not the only ones who can and do sense fear. Humans do it, as well. Granted, our level of fear-sensing is not as acute as most other vertebrates. But we still have the ability. Bullies use it. Car salesmen use it. Debt collectors use it. Con men and scam artists use it. Athletes use it. Diplomats use it. And of course, various types of warriors use it.

There’s a related term here: "Never let them see you sweat." That, if applied both figuratively and literally, is what it’s all about. Yet, it’s more than just about sweating.

In the end, it’s not particularly difficult to understand how animals, including us, can sense fear. Actually, it is beneficial that you understand it; that you understand how fear is both projected, and how it is sensed. It can help you to keep from getting bullied, from getting taken advantage of, and indeed, there are times when it can help you to survive. Part of it is instinctual, and part of it is learned. A good part of it is skill. You’d be well served to learn this skill well, both sensing it and controlling the projecting of it. Yet, to learn it best, you must understand it.

To understand it best, I would suggest that you change the phrase from "sensing fear" to "reading fear." It’s not only the wild animals. Most all animals are capable of it ... including you.

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