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Plenty of Pheromones in the Sea


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Courtesy of Adam Kleifield

As we sat in my car outside a silent movie theater in Los Angeles, my friend anxiously opened a plastic bag containing a white T-shirt she’d slept in for the past three nights. “Does it smell like me?” she asked nervously, gesturing the open end toward my face. I stuck my nose into the bag and inhaled.

We were about to attend a pheromone-based speed dating party with the following rules:

1. Find a clean white T-shirt.

2. Sleep in only that shirt for three consecutive nights.

3. Bring the shirt to the party sealed in a bag.

As we walked into the theater, coordinators assigned each of our bags a unique color-coded sticker (pink for female, blue for male), and tossed them into a pile. A pack of hipsters nursing PBRs sat in the wooden theater seats, slightly amused by the bizarre 70s Egyptian-themed silent porn projected onto the screen.

In the courtyard, 20-somethings mingled by the outdoor bar. Did they think alcohol would make us okay with sniffing strangers’ dirty laundry? Mounds of bags sat on two long tables – beckoning our nostrils.

We were instructed to sniff as many T-shirts of the sex we were attracted to, and select shirts that innately smelled the sexiest.

I came across bag number 166, which shockingly smelled exactly like my grandmother’s house – a delightful mix of Christmas and chicken parmesan. The point was to trust our instincts, right? I went with it.

julia with pheromones

Courtesy of Adam Kleifield

A photographer snapped a photo of the bag and I, and coordinators displayed the image on a big screen. If grandma-boy found me attractive, he could strike up a conversation and begin the courting process: a perfect biological match — or was it?

The premise of the evening depended upon a chemical that is well understood in plants and animals, but elusive and hotly debated in humans, called a pheromone. Pheromones are invisible compounds that animals, humans, insects and even some plants secrete to silently communicate with other members of their cohort. Karl Grammer from the human behavior research group at the University of Vienna put together a neat interactive pheromone presentation here.

When a honeybee stings another animal, it emits alarm pheromones that send the rest of the colony into defense mode. In humans, some scientists believe that they encourage us to mate with partners whose genes are different from ours, and discourage us from mating with our relatives. There are even companies marketing pheromone-enhancing perfumes that supposedly boost peoples’ sex lives.

When non-human animals catch a whiff from another member of their species, pheromones enter their vomeronasal organ (VNO) in the nose, which acts as the gateway between a chemical and the brain. Scientists believe the signal then incites a behavioral response – running away from predators, or beginning the courtship process, for example.

Kara C. Hoover, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and pheromone researcher, explained that since most humans lack a VNO, the scientific community has assumed that humans can’t detect and respond to them.

“However, the receptors for pheromones do exist in the human nasal epithelium,” said Hoover. “Because it hasn’t been very well studied, the functionality isn’t clear. There is, however, a possibility that we don’t need the organ itself because the receptors have moved.”

And this possibility motivated pheromone party coordinator, Judith Prays, to plan a series of pheromone-based dating parties in Los Angeles and Brooklyn, NY.

“I ended up going on a date with someone I never would have chosen,” Prays said in an interview with CNN, “We ended up dating for two years. And the thing about him is that he smells amazing to me, which led me to think that maybe I should be choosing men based on smells.”

While I agree that smell plays an important role in mate selection in humans, the party had one major flaw: the sample size was too low.

As I rifled through the bags, ostensibly sticking my nose into three-day-old T-shirt armpits, I had zero problem finding attractive shirts – as evidenced by good ‘ole grandma number 166 – but the minute he approached me, I wasn’t attracted to his appearance at all.

“A pheromone party is somewhat problematic because pheromones are only one of many variables involved in the mating game,” said Hoover. “Our culture gives us rules of behavior, which might override some physiological responses.”

We are complex creatures, which makes studying our response to pheromones challenging. The way we approach mate selection depends upon more than our simple physiology. Society tells us that we should date the most attractive, financially stable, hilarious, socially responsible, politically viable mates. There is so much more than the raw ‘I smell you, you smell me, let’s mate’ scenario common to dogs and other animals constantly going at it.

“You’re throwing a bunch of single people together at a party. The likelihood of having some mating be successful may have nothing to do with the pheromones,” said Hoover.

And Prays agreed. When I asked her in an email if anyone found pheromone-based love at one of her parties, she replied, “Not really. It’s successful as a way of opening peoples mind about dating, starting conversations and being a unique experience.”

Which was true. Although I didn’t find a biologically compatible mate, I did meet new friends and enjoyed participating in an unusual social experience. That in itself made it worth it.

And I also learned one more important thing about myself: Apparently I’m attracted to the smell of my grandmother’s house. Go figure.

Julia Calderone About the Author: Julia Calderone is a biologist-turned-science-writer currently living in Northern California. She has a website and a Twitter Account.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






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