The Scent of a Relationship

By Martin Brown

pic1We’ve all heard the stories about how two people met and just fell, as the saying goes, head over heels for each other. Now scientists are beginning to conclude that what we long thought was “love at first sight,” might actually be love at first whiff. Seems a little nutty, and certainly not very romantic, but when we say, “love is in the air,” we are perhaps being more literal than we ever imagined.

A recent article in Psychology Today reports the remarkable findings of Claus Wedekind, a biologist at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, in which 44 men were given new T-shirts and instructed to wear them to bed over two straight nights. The men in the experiment were provided with scent-free soaps and aftershave, so that only their own natural scent would permeate the shirts.

Later, a total of 49 single women sniffed the shirts and indicated which ones they found had the most pleasant odors:

In numbers that defied any form of mere chance, the women picked the shirts of men who were immunologically dissimilar.

In other words, our instincts send us in search of mates who have immune systems quite different from that of our own.

This would seem logical, since, in protecting the next generation, it would be biologically sound that we mate with partners who have different immune patterns from those of our own. In so doing, we increase our chances of creating offspring that are better able to fight disease.

In a similar study performed at the University of Chicago, women again performed this act of genetic wizardry. Apparently women’s senses are more finely tuned than those of men in picking out mates that have a perfect mix of both similar and dissimilar genes.

The one place where the pattern of identification appeared to fall into disarray occurred with women who were using a birth control pill. In that case, they often were attracted to the scent of men who had a similar set of immune system strengths and weaknesses: men who genetically could have been cousins to these women, as opposed to those who have a very different genetic makeup.

Researchers reason that this is a reversal in the biological instincts: because the contraceptive pill tricks the body into thinking that it is pregnant, it directed the “pregnant” female toward an attraction to kin, and therefore the normal scent instinct goes in the opposite direction.

Once having misidentified a potential mate, researchers believe that a woman, now romantically involved, will no longer notice the incompatible scent of her mate because of the attachment that has developed.

The mysteries in the power of scent deepen when one considers that men are more often attracted to the scent of women who are not on the pill. Several studies have shown that men rate women as smelling the best when they are at the peak of their menstrual cycle.

Psychologist Rachel Herz, author of the groundbreaking book The Scent of Desire, suggests that women ready to seek a long-term partner consider alternative birth control before they start that quest. As Herz says, “If you’re looking for a man to be the father of your child, go off the pill before you start your search.”

Of course our scent detectors most commonly are confounded by a variety of perfumed soaps, aftershave, and other things most of us do that mask our natural scent. Researchers believe that the long embraces, kissing and petting that we do before engaging in sexual intercourse might actually be a biological attempt to breakthrough that mask of scents so we can find our partners natural scent.

Geoffrey Miller, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of New Mexico and the author of The Mating Mind, points out, “Hunter-gatherers didn’t have to do a lot of kissing, because they could smell each other pretty clearly from a few feet away.” In the age of showers, scents, and soaps, however, Miller says, “we have to get our noses and mouths really up close to people to get a good idea of their biochemistry.”

So if you’re thinking this guy might just be the one, get close, take a deep breath and go with your instincts. Chances are your nose will know first and your heart will follow its lead.

Other SMW Articles on Relationship Trends

Where Are All the Men? Ask Mother Nature…

Reel Romance: Do the Movies Get It Right?

The One-Hour Orgasm: Fact, or Fantasy?