There is one thing that has to do with olfaction, smells, fragrances and all that jazz, that I left out from my ‘review’ on Madalina Diaconu’s book. It refers to the interesting and – I won’t avoid the cliche – controversial issue of pheromones.
Back in Craiova, my home town, we have this neighbor, a woman in her 40s, who divorced her husband years ago, actually the first time I ever heard the legal term applied to one of the people I knew. It was huge and sent the old ladies living on the 1st floor on a gossiping frenzy. But I digress… the reason why I brought this on is because of something she told my mum at some point. She said that, when a single woman after the divorce, she used to (maybe still does) spray her apartment with some men cologne because it always gave her a good feeling. “A bit of a manly smell can’t hurt”.
Now before you start to question her degree of sanity, you should consider the following. There have been recent studies (links later on) which have shown that the scent of a male (maybe they should make a movie with this title as well) is enough to determine a change of mood in women. Somehow I am inclined to believe this without further inquiries. However the Dexter in me pushes towards a more thorough explanation.
Let’s start from the very beginning (the usual euphemism for a long, boring speech).
Well, the question whether humans use odor cues to choose their mate has been debated for over four decades now. In the late ’50s a team of German researchers found that insects used what they called pheromones1 to trigger a response in other members of the same species. The phenomenon had been observed by Jean Henri Fabre, French naturalist from the 19th century, who had placed a virgin female emperor moth under a cover and watched how it still continued to attract dozens of males into his study. Fabre concluded that the moth must have released some substance that humans could not detect yet which the specifically adapted olfactory system of the insects had not failed to capture.
The 60s brought along not only the sexual revolution, but also the discovery of the first vertebrate pheromone which outranked the insects’ by being more complex and, consequently, much more difficult to assess and investigate.
Turns out that “In terms of numbers and sizes of sebaceous and apocrine glands (…), humans have to be considered the most highly scented ape of all” says (Stoddard, 1990). These scent glands give off a plethora of natural products that envelope the body with a complex, and probably individually distinctive, volatile label (Schaal&Porter, 1991)”2. Not only that, but we also seem to have the ability to decode olfactory signs coming from members of our species. Babies recognize the smell of their mothers, mothers know the smell of their children3, a situation also common among siblings. It may be the right moment to point out that women “are far better at identifying odors than men”.
Anyway, chemical cues used to identify members of the same kin help avoid inbreeding and tighten social bonds. Does it go farther than that? Could be.
There are many types of pheromones: allomones (certain plants, when being grazed upon, would release a pheromone which causes those around it to produce tannin, which in turn makes herbivores’ lunch less tasty) , kairomones, terriorial pheromones, information pheromones, sex pheromones and many others. To detect them, mammals use their vomeronasal organ (VNO),
while others process them with the help of their main olfactory system. The
scientists are still debating on whether humans have a functional VNO
Since they sell well, the spotlight has been mostly on sex pheromones and the response they trigger in humans. Despite the media-induced hype, hard evidence on human pheromones leading to rapid changes in behavior (e.g. copulation) is still to be found. However… there has been some proof of “pheromonal response”4 in humans. The one who has made it into popular culture goes by the scientific name of the McClintock effect. According to it “when women of childbearing age live together, over time they may fall into menstrual synchrony”5. However, releaser pheromones, which prompt responses such as mating, have never been observed in humans. Nevertheless that has not stopped perfume companies from capitalizing on commercials showing women going crazy at the smell of a man using cologne.
Recent studies have shown that even if men forgot about the deodorant, women might still enjoy the experience. Turns out that androstadienone, a chemical compound found in male sweat, can increase the level of cortisone in women. Small doses of cortisone bring along positive effects: “Compared to their response when sniffing a control odor (yeast), the
women who sniffed androstadienone reported an improved mood and
significantly higher sexual arousal, while their physiological
response, including blood pressure, heart rate and breathing, also
increased.”6 Exposure to a healthy man’s sweaty armpit might have therapeutic consequences and cause “physiological and psychological changes in women”7. Aside from making us happy, the chemical might also help cure diseases triggered by low levels of cortisone8. Let us not get carried away though. As Wyatt points out “firm conclusions on human pheromones in sexual attraction remain elusive despite unceasing interest from the popular press”9.
Google “pheromone products” and you will get some 770,000 entries. Websites however seem to be using the phrase as a fancy euphemism for “aphrodisiacs” as it sounds scientific and test proven. Unlike some of the product names: “Master and Mistress Functional Pheromones”, “Primal Instinct”, “Max Attraction GOLD”, “Lure for Her”, “Alter Ego for Men”, “Amour Devil”, “Peaches n Cream” (grandma’s recipe for successful dating, probably). Could be an impression, but most of the products seem to be designed for men. They are of course accompanied by testimonials telling how many smiles (yup!), flirts, dates and home runs they got after using the products dubbed the “liquid panty remover”.
Advertised as a blending of science and magic which would make even the dullest frog turn into Prince Charming, these love potions promise to be the ace up any average guy’s sleeve. The subversive, manipulative, “dark” side of pheromones in particular, and of perfumes/smell in general, has caused some concern: “The idea that odours might affect our emotions or subconscious, and is not entirely under our control, is scary to modern sensibilities (but paradoxically, at the same time it is often the claim of perfume advertisements).”10 It takes only one look at an Axe ad (which I personally find scary for some reason, could be that I’ve watched too many zombie movies) to see what that might mean. What could be more frightening than seeing intelligent beings whose repressed emotions triggered by some powerful, perverse stimulus burst and take over, turning them into irrational, crazed, instinctual creatures. Ah, the nightmare of any Enlightenment scientist. It also serves to highlight something I find representative of the age we live in. The fact that there has to be a device to cater to any of our needs. Even the most abstract ones. Technology has been outsourced to answer to our most intimate issues.
Well, was my neighbor right or not? Can the actual smell of a person make us happy? Or is it the memories that we associate with that scent? Can human pheromones (if they exist) affect our behavior? The jury seems to be out on these issues. However given the high complexity of the human odours and of the mechanism they use to decode them11, we should see some interesting breakthrough in the future.
Tip: to those of you interested in permaculture: information on how
pheromones work on insects has been used to develop pest-control
substances which would not harm the environment.
Tip: to those of you living in Bucharest or other dog-ridden places: When chased by a dog it is most useful to have an identical twin running the opposite direction. Studies have shown that, despite their incredible olfactory system, dogs cannot discriminate between the smells of monozygotic twins. Hope it helps. Other than that a big stick or a pepper spray might do the trick.
- “A pheromone is a chemical produced by one animal that elicits a specific behavior or physiological response in another animal of the same species. Pheromones are a form of chemical communication. Although most important for communication among social insects (ants, termines and bees), they convey important information for almost all species – above all, information about reproductive state”, I Know What I Like (Undestanding Odor Preferences) by Rachel S. Herz, in The Smell Culture Reader, edited by Jim Drobnick, Berg, 2006, p. 201.
Although the author refers to pheromones as a communication instrument mainly used by animals, there is evidence of behavior induced by the release of pheromones in the world of plants as well.
- Cited in: Pheromones and animal behaviour, Tristram D. Wyatt, Cambridge University Press, 2003, p. 270.
- “Neonates are, for example, able to distinguish the odor of their mothers from that of other women and mothers can already identify their infants’ garments within the few days after delivery. (…) It has recently been found that neonates are attracted to the odor of amniotic fluid, which suggests that they may have become familiar with that substance prior to birth”, The Chemistry of Pheromones and Other Chemicals, Stefan Schulz, Springer, 2005, p 272.
- The Smell Culture Reader, 201.
- The Smell Culture Reader, p. 201
- University of California – Berkeley (2007, February 8). Male Sweat Boosts Women’s Hormone Levels. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 27, 2009, from http://www.sciencedaily.com /releases/2007/02/070207172019.htm
- “Instead of giving the hormone in pill form, which has side effects such as ulcers and weight gain, “a potential therapeutic mechanism whereby merely smelling synthesized or purified human chemosignals may be used to modify endocrine balance,” the authors wrote.”, Idem.
- Wyatt, p. 300.
- Wyatt, p. 274.
- “There are at least three functions that appear to be mediated by the complex odours produced by the axillae: first, recognition; second, potentially, mate choice; and, third, priming effects of possibly different kinds. These many effects could be signaled by different compounds in the cocktail. Currently we do not know but, for example, mate choice by females could theoretically be based on the odours of armpits reflecting androgen levels in two ways: by the size of the gland or its activity. Both of these mechanisms would lead to more odorous axillae, which might, if humans are like other mammals, have been attractive in the distant past (even if men with the most ‘powerful’ armpits do not win the most mates today).”, Wyatt, 2003: 290.