Pheromones: Myths uncovered

Photos by Jaquan Leonard and Natalie Sealover.

Pheromones. We all have them. You have probably heard of them. But what are they? Can humans smell them? Do they affect us when we are talking to someone we find attractive? Are they the culprit behind your spontaneous hook-up last weekend?

Pheromones have been discussed and speculated in the media since 1959, when the chemical substance was first discovered. Plenty of misconceptions about pheromones and their effects have permeated our perceptions of what the chemicals actually do. Pheromones do not strike you like Cupid’s arrow. Rather, pheromones are a precise cocktail of compounds that trigger a variety of reactions in fellow members of a species.

According to Melissa Hughes, professor and Associate Chair of the College’s biology department, “a pheromone is any chemical signal that one animal makes to convey information to another.”  Professor Michael Ruscio, Associate Chair and Undergraduate Program Director of the College’s psychology department, has a similar definition of pheromones. They are “airborne molecules that one animal releases or secretes,” that in some way “get from animal A to B.”

We encounter pheromones all the time. Whenever a dog urinates on something (or someone) that is their way of saying this is mine, this human is mine. The same goes when a cat rubs up against you — they secrete pheromones from glands in their necks. “Pretty much all mammals with a spinal chord and insects secrete pheromones,” Ruscio explained. But they work differently in each species.

Certain animals rely on and use pheromones a lot more than humans do. “For a rat, the sexy thing is urine,” Ruscio said. If an animal marks a spot, and another animal is there an hour later, they can look out and try to find the animal in their surroundings, or come back to the same spot the next day, at the same time. Humans obviously work a little differently– we don’t go to a coffee shop and instantly sniff out the cute barista whose shift just ended. Instead we probably smell the coffee.

When animals choose whom to mate with, plenty of factors come into play– and pheromones are a large part of that mix.

Rats rely heavily on pheromones to ensure they do not mate with a brother or sister, but instead find a mate genetically different than them. Humans do this too, but there are more factors in motion than just scent. “We have so many more senses that we work off of when choosing a mate, we see someone…we’re visual…we’re not limited just by pheromones,” Ruscio said. And if someone is wearing perfume, deodorant, used scented shampoo to wash their hair, ate any sort of smelly food or smoked, their natural pheromones are masked.

This is one of many reasons why it is challenging for scientists to study pheromones in humans. We have so many overarching factors that it is significantly difficult to study their effects; “you can’t put humans in a box,” Hughes said. However, studies have been done that indicate pheromones do play a subconscious role in human behavior.

One of the most well known studies involving human pheromones is informally known as the T-shirt test. The study has been performed many times; Hughes even had her students conduct a version of the experiment during a lab. Essentially women smell T-shirts worn by a range of men and choose which shirts’ scent they prefer. “Females who are cycling normally prefer the scents of males who are genetically different from them,” Hughes said. She continued to explain,“men will prefer shirts of women who are in the first part of their [menstrual] cycle over women who are not cycling normally — on some sort of oral contraceptive or who are in the second part of their cycles, past ovulation.” Hughes said it is extremely hard to rank the T-shirts as they do not outwardly smell really good or really bad. “A lot of people will say I really don’t notice anything different.” Pheromones only play out on a subconscious level.

The findings from these tests are significant. They show that men prefer the pheromonal scents of women who are at the start of their menstrual cycle and who are not taking any sort of hormonal contraceptive. When women take a hormonal contraceptive, most commonly the pill, they are in an altered hormonal state closer to pregnancy. When women are in this state, they prefer the scents of men who are genetically similar to them, as they would if they were actually pregnant. They would want to seek out men who were kin, who would take care of them. Women who are not taking a hormonal contraceptive and are cycling normally prefer the scents of men who are genetically different than them. “Hormonal contraceptives don’t just negate the preference; they flip it,” Hughes said. Unfortunately, studies have not been conducted to test results of anyone who identifies as LGBTQ. “There is a huge, huge gap [of research] there.”

What does this mean for us? Pheromones could play a role in what we have always called chemistry. You just click with some people and with others you don’t. While pheromones do play a role in our love lives, it is hard to say just how much. If you wear any sort of deodorant, perfume, cologne, use any type of scented shampoo or body wash, take a hormonal contraceptive, smoke or eat just about any food with a scent– basically if you are a fairly normal human-being– your natural pheromones are compromised. Pheromones may have something to do with the random person you find yourself attracted to, but they are not the only factor. Hughes suggests, “before making any long term commitments make sure that you like the smell of that person…in their natural state.”

*This article first appeared in the February 2017 issue of The Yard.

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Justine Hall is the Managing Editor of CisternYard News. She is an Arts Management and Art History double major with a minor in English. As a native Californian she is still getting used to the South’s shortage of quality Mexican food and acai bowls. When she’s not in the CYN office, she enjoys hot yoga, running, any activities that involve being outside and drinking copious amounts of coffee.

'Pheromones: Myths uncovered' has 1 comment

  1. March 4, 2017 @ 8:59 am James V. Kohl

    Nutrient-dependent/pheromone-controlled adaptive evolution: a model

    There is no other model that links what organisms eat to the physiology of their biophysically constrained RNA-mediated reproduction. There is also no way to dumb-down the science for comparison to claims about mutation-driven evolution in the text-book published on the same day as my 2013 review.

    See: Mutation-Driven Evolution


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