The Nose Knows?

Every once in a while at The Aerie, I’ll come home a little weary and The Beloved will hug me and say, “You don’t smell like you. You’re sick.”, which I usually say is crap, because, well, I never like to admit when I’m sick and human olfaction is pretty crappy – even if you take into account women’s superior sense of smell compared to men’s.  Even if I am sick, I can’t smell sick.  This usually leads to a happy hour discussion that revolves around the sense of smell in humans – specifically, are there human pheromones that produce biological responses?

What are pheromones?  Pheromones are chemicals released from one individual in a species that cause a biological response in others.  Some of the common responses are to “sound” an alarm, leave a trail, mark territory, or attract a mate.  They are well documented in insects, fish, and mammals.  They are not, however, known in humans.  In mammals that use pheromones, there’s a mass behind the nose called the vomeronasal organ (VNO) – which specifically receives and transmits pheromone signals.

Lots of animals have this organ – humans do not.  Ipso facto, no human pheromone response, right?
Maybe not.  Recent research has found a separate pheromone detecting system in mice that bypasses the VNO and directly activates the gonadal axis.  Importantly, humans DO have a homologous system.  A compound found* to be in high concentration in men’s armpits – androstadienone – has been found to improve the moods and increase sexual arousal of women that smell it compared to other scents (the analogous compound for men seems to be estratetraenol, which is found in women’s urine**).  And brain imaging scans of women exposed to androstadienone showed increased activity in the hypothalamus***, an area known to influence mate choice and sexual behavior in animals.

So where does that leave us?  Are we at the mercy of compounds that we’re not even aware that we secrete and detect?  Or does our “higher” brain circumvent, override and/or justify our attractions and behaviors?  Certainly, I think it’s much more the latter, but it is fascinating to know that we’re still learning more about our own biology all the time.
* one of the leaders in this area is a guy with the name of George Petri.  Seriously.
** wow, I am not going there.
*** it also lit up homosexual mens' hypothalamus, but not those of heterosexual men.

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18 thoughts on “The Nose Knows?

  1. Are we at the mercy of compounds that we’re not even aware that we
    secrete and detect? Or does our “higher” brain circumvent, override
    and/or justify our attractions and behaviors? Certainly, I think it’s
    much more the latter…Dare I say you think too much? So many otherwise intelligent humans have such difficulty believing we are still capable of running on instinct.** wow, I am not going there.chicken 8:-)

  2. Very interesting. I'd think that the fragarance companies would have this information splattered all over their products! (Or maybe they do, I wouldn't know).

  3. ** well – just another excuse for not washing myself for yet another week. We'll just move on from calling me Victorian to calling me sexy, eh?
    (honestly, I didn't just say that. And yes, I do bathe regularly (at least four times a year))
    Oh sh*t, I should just shut up.
    Seriously, I can also tell the difference in my Love's smell when he's getting ill. I don't know that it's pheremones more than just body chemistry – he gets a faint bitter smell to his usual body odor. Of course, I'm the kind of gal who leans down to sniff him while he sleeps, just to get my fill before I leave him for work each day, so maybe I'm just a bit more sensitive than usual to his "normal" smell?

  4. Pheromones are also known to sync menstrual cycles in women; both male and female pheromones can have this effect. Evolutionary biologists argue that it is useful for all of the women in a group to be fertile at the same time [1].There have been pheromone-based colognes and perfumes on the market for at least thirty years; however, none of them have a strong blind study show efficacy. It seems that attractiveness in humans is more than just "does (s)he smell good?" [2] So we are influenced by our r-brain but driven by the neo-cortex [3].John [1] Me, I just call it exhausting.[2] Not that I'm putting down cleanliness. Being clean is one of the sexiest things one human can do for another. (Helping to get clean is another…)[3] If you believe MacLean, anyway. But there's been an awful lot of research over the transom since 1952.

  5. QofB — it is interesting to think about the biochemical nature of "love at first sight (or in this case smell) — and what it means when two people have "chemistry".

  6. Ellie — when I googled "androstadienone" looking for a picture, there were a LOT of rather questionable hits about colognes that were "scientifically proven" to cause attraction. Amazing!

  7. LOM — it's funny… one of the researchers ended one of their papers saying that clean clothes and good hygiene were more important to catching a mate than exacerbating their natural scent!

  8. When I was searching to find the right pics to go with this post, I found a TON of colognes and perfumes "scientifically proven" to cause attraction. I really wonder how many people fall for that stuff.

  9. When I was searching to find the right pics to go with this post,Surprised you didn't come across this one – scientists hard at work on pheromones in the 1950's. I really wonder how many people fall for that stuff. Enough to keep them in business. Like "male supplements", the mere idea that you are using the product is frequently enough to give people that necessary extra bit of self-confidence.John

  10. [2] Not that I'm putting down cleanliness. Being clean is one of the sexiest things one human can do for another. (Helping to get clean is another…) I'd never argue against the practice, but in most cases it can't beat the smell of a man first thing in the morning before his shower.

  11. it is interesting to think about the biochemical nature of "love at first sight (or in this case smell) — and what it means when two people have "chemistry". How about love before first sight? More than once I've been brought to a screeching halt by a man before I even saw or heard him.

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