Cupid’s arrow has long symbolized the mysteries of sexual attraction. But what factors really drive romantic interest? Scientists speculate that airborne chemical signals known as pheromones may explain the biochemistry of love and lust.
The biochemistry of love
The existence of human pheromones remains controversial. It’s clear that many plants and animals species use hormonal secretions to communicate information relating to reproduction. For example, in 1959 researchers discovered that female silkworms secreted a powerful aphrodisiac, called bombykol, that can attract male silkworms from miles away. To date, however, ironclad evidence that human behavior is governed by pheromones remains elusive.
Nevertheless, there are a number of intriguing studies, which suggest the surprising ways that scents, secretions and body odors containing pheromones may influence human behavior unconsciously.
According to Bettina Pause, a psychologist, “We’ve just started to understand that there is communication below the level of consciousness. My guess is that a lot of our communication is influenced by chemosignals.”
Scientists explain that pheromones in animals are released in sweat, urine and saliva. These chemical messengers appear to have both an emotional and physical effect on other members of their species.
In mammals, for instance, pheromones are detected by a structure in the nose called the vomeronasal organ, which relays signals to the hypothalamus a region of the brain that controls emotional states, hormonal regulation and sexual arousal.
Some of the most important evidence for the existence of human pheromones comes from a 1998 study by Dr. Martha McClintock, who found that women who live in close proximity (the same dorm, for example) tend to have synchronized menstrual cycles. Scientists believe that chemical messages in sweat are responsible for this harmonization of periods.
Pheromones and brain imaging
One powerful form of evidence that pheromones exist comes from PET scanning technology, which can examine the effect of chemical odors on male and female brains. In one study, researchers found that certain hormone-like smells activated specific areas in the hypothalamus related to sexuality, which are not triggered by other odors.
In the words of Dr. David Berliner, “These findings corroborate that human pheromones do exist, and that women can communicate chemically with men and vice versa. This is a very important finding because it shows specific areas of the brain that are activated by these chemicals.”
As you might expect, the brains of heterosexual men and women respond very differently to specific chemical messengers. For example, the brain regions in the female hypothalamus are highly active when women are exposed to testosterone-like chemicals (while exposure to estrogen-like messengers has no effect). Conversely, the brain areas in the male hypothalami light up like a Christmas tree when men are exposed to estrogen-like hormones.
Scientists believe this gender-specific response to chemical secretions shapes the way men and women to perceive each other on an unconscious level.
Can pheromones make you more attractive?
If pheromones govern sexual arousal, then can they be harnessed to make people more attractive? More specifically, could pheromones be added to perfumes, which could be used to lure desired mates?
One study from the University of Chicago found that pheromone-type chemical can heighten the heart rate, increase body temperature and change mood. As of yet, however, scientists have been unable to isolate the specific chemicals that trigger attraction and sexual desire.
Of course, many perfume manufacturers claim that their fragrances can spark desire. In fact, most of these products contain pheromones from animals. However, most scientists insist that pheromones are species specific. In other words, until researchers can isolate specific human pheromones or develop synthetic analogs, then a true love potion of love will remain elusive.
Nevertheless, scientists are continuing to investigate pheromones for their scientific, commercial and therapeutic potential. For example, a company called Pherin Pharmaceuticals is looking into ways to use pheromones messengers to alleviate stress, anxiety and menstrual cramps.
How pheromones may influence human behavior
The science of pheromones is still very unsettled. However, let’s look at some ways researchers believe these chemical signals may be influencing you and driving your sex life:
- The odors breastfeeding women emit from their nipples attracts infants and primes women without children to be more sexually aroused.
- A compound derived from testosterone (called androstadienone) has been shown to make women feel more relaxed.
- Scientists are investigating something called the histocompatibility complex. This refers to a genetically-based “odor print,” which involves scents that reflect certain characteristics found in the genes and the immune system.
- According to the olfactory neuroscientist Charles Wysocki, “With the exception of identical twins, no two individuals are likely to have the same odor print.”
Research by Wysocki and others indicates that women prefer the musky scent of men who happen to have gene characteristics that match up well with their own DNA. In other words, the nose knows. That is, odor prints may be a huge driver of attractiveness in so far as they help people pick mates with DNA that complements their own. This unconscious form of selection benefits offspring.
Love is in the air
Scientists are still a long way off from unraveling the mysteries of attraction and the role that pheromones may play in influencing sexual behavior. For centuries, people have used expressions like “love is in the air” and “love is a matter of chemistry.” The emerging science of pheromones suggests that these proverbial adages may be far truer than anyone imagined.
— Scott O’Reilly