The Scent of Love?
Q. I saw an article in a magazine about sexual scents called pheromones. I was just wondering if pheromones are real. What do you think of the claims that pheromone perfumes can attract the opposite sex?
Pheromones are definitely real -- and they do exert some influence on human behavior. In the wild, pheromones are sexual scents that attract animals to each other during mating season. In humans, their effect may prove to be a little less romantic.
One interesting pheromone study suggests that these airborne hormones synchronize the menstrual cycles of women who live together. The undetectable chemical signals seem to emanate from sweat, or at least that's what University of Chicago researcher Martha McClintock found when she exposed women to odorless compounds from the armpits of other women (the study observed women in college dormitories). Depending on whether the sweat was collected before, during, or after ovulation, the menstrual cycles of the women doing the sniffing sped up or slowed down. While this news won't help you much for Valentine's Day, it is persuasive proof that pheromones have some effect on us.
The research in this field is really quite new. It was only in 1985 that scientists even discovered that humans have a pheromone receptor called the vomeronasal organ (VNO), two little pits deep within the nose. How this receptor works -- if it works at all -- isn't fully known, but I'm sure we'll hear more about it in the future.
Given the tantalizing possibility that men and women may respond to each other's pheromones, it isn't surprising that somebody is out to make a buck on what very little we know about their effect. (McClintock also found that exposing women volunteers to an odorless substance related to testosterone kept them in a more upbeat mood than when they weren't exposed to the substance.) The notion that there is some all-purpose pheromone perfume that can start a stampede by amorous suitors is pretty far-fetched -- as is the idea that these fragrances can boost your career (as some ads claim). You may never know whether pheromones play some role in the attraction you have for your mate -- or vice versa. The old sweet mystery of love is still...a mystery.