And The Nose Shall Lead Us
With all the confusion in complex societies, how do people decide who is the most suitable mate?
Some are lucky enough to feel such intense attraction that the decision is overwhelmingly made for them through its natural course. For others, it’s about trial and error, with many other factors taken into consideration. Does he make enough money, is she pretty enough, is he from the right social group, does she enjoy the same hobbies? External superficialities can cloud our judgments, as we are discovering internal mechanisms which play a key role in that decision making process.
In the 1990’s, scientists began to discover that humans produce and react to tiny airborne chemicals called Pheromones. Pheromones are secreted through our sweat glands and bounce from our bodies to our nasal passages. The Vomeronasal Organ (VNO) in our nose detects the Pheromones, and then causes biological reactions that affect our sexual drive, desire and choice of partners. Flustered cheeks, an increased heart beat and sweaty palms are some of the outward signs of attraction. Inwardly, that attraction could mean the approval of the potential partners genes and immune system.
In 1995, Claus Wedekind of the University of Bern in Switzerland asked a group of women to smell some unwashed T-shirts worn by different men. He discovered that women consistently preferred the smell of men whose immune systems were different from their own. A segment of our DNA called the Major Histocompatibility Complex (MHC), are disease-detecting structures and function as the immune system's sensors. When a disease is recognized, killer T cells are alerted and swarm the intruders, smothering them with destructive enzymes.
Wedekind and his team found that overall, women prefer those scents exuded by men whose MHC profiles varied the most from their own. By doing so, she increases her chances of fertility, and secures a survival advantage for her offspring with a wider range of disease resistance.
Perfume, daily soapy showers, contraceptive pills, internet dating and arranged marriages may all have their draws, but they may also be short-circuiting our own built-in means of mate choice, adaptations shaped to our unique needs by millions of years of ancestral adversities. As the role of smell in human behavior yields to more understanding, we find that our tastes, emotions and life choices are far more sophisticated than ever imagined, or much simpler if we can adhere to our natural born instincts, depending on how one chooses to view it.
Follow your nose.