The sense of smell says how much we can feel attracted to a person. Scents are as important as looks when it comes to choosing a partner.
We've all heard about love at first sight, but we don't hear anybody talking about love at first whiff.
However, it's even more likely that we feel attracted to a person's scent rather than their looks. This has been wired in our systems without us knowing it, and it's something that has been present throughout all of our lives without us realizing it. Even though we don't behave like dogs smelling everybody we meet, looking for potential sex partners, some of the ways our body works are very similar to the ones of other animals.
Our noses are the best compass to find a suitable partner because of two reasons: pheromones and MHC, the genes that compose a great part of our immune system. Many species of the animal kingdom communicate through pheromones. These chemical signs unconsciously help both males and females of a species demonstrate sexual availability. The way animals recognize potential mates is through the sense of smell, which makes them feel instantly aroused. It's been proven that men and women, unconsciously, also partake in this natural practice. Without our knowledge, when we feel attracted to somebody our bodies produce these chemical compounds to communicate our organism's sexual disposition. We might not be aware of it, but our brains are.
All types of pheromones have different physical or emotional effects. Animals are much more capable of recognizing them, because they have a specialized organ for it. However, the part of the brain that interprets these chemical messages is exactly the same in both human and animal: the hypothalamus. This little part of our brain comprises much of the limbic system, the part of our body responsible of managing our emotions, including our sexual behavior. This explains why smell can turn us on so suddenly, without us even realizing what's happening with our bodies. Nonetheless, men and women react differently to these stimuli. A woman's hypothalamus, on the one hand, often reacts to testosterone, while a man's reacts to estrogen.
The notion that pheromones can make us more attractive, however, is not true at all. They only mean, more than anything else, that we are sexually available. Therefore, buying a specialized perfume that markets itself by saying it contains pheromones is anything but useful. Pheromones do have an effect on the way we perceive the people around us, but they're not the main reason why we feel attracted to them.
As a matter of fact, we feel attracted to another person's aroma because of the MHC genes that constitute their immune systems. The way these elements are combined in our bodies defines how resistant we are to diseases, and we're programmed to search for partners that have a different configuration to our own. These genes produce HLA molecules, the ones that define the sicknesses we can fight off and our susceptibility to others. Clearly, having a wider range of MHC genes is a genetic advantage, and our body unconsciously knows this. Our body perceives other humans' MHC through their smell, and we feel attracted to those that are opposite to ours, because in case of reproduction, they would eventually spawn offspring with a more robust immune system.
This concept was studied back in the nineties by Claus Wedekind, a Swiss zoologist, who divided a group of male and female students and made them wear plain cotton T-Shirts for two nights in which they would not consume anything that could affect their natural scent. After that, he stocked the shirts in different cardboard boxes for the students to smell, and they had to classify the odors according to three categories: intensity, pleasantness, and sexiness. The results showed that the smells that people liked the most were the ones from people with different MHC, which was previously analyzed. It made clear, then, that although we may be in an advanced stage of our evolution, some of our most primal instincts are still awake within us. We just don't smell them.
Scent can make us fall in love, but there are other things that can sweep us off our feet. Learn about the 16 types of kisses that will make you fall in love, and all the things about love and sex you should know before you're 30.
Phil Chester (@philchester)