The Nose Knows

Is compatibility more about chemistry and less about conversation?


Priya Mirchandani

The nose knows what the heart doesn’t. Is compatibility more about chemistry and less about conversation?

So, you’re agonising over your online dating profile, editing and re-editing it every chance you get? Or, obsessively searching for that perfect selfie that will make your DP pop? Torturing your abs for hours in the gym to attract some TLC? Kicking yourself for trying to impress the hottie at work with your latest hip-on-the-model-but-ridiculous-on-you ensemble? Reeling under the weight of the EMI on your chick-magnet, the glorious Beemer? Who isn’t, right? Well, the birds aren’t, for starters. Neither are the bees. Nor the apes, the bears or the fish. What they’re doing to find a mate, and have been since their first day on earth, is following their noses.

Oh, sure. How challenging is it for a red-bottomed chimp to find a partner? All it takes is a saucy wiggle of said red bottom, and it’s a done deal. We humans, on the other hand, are a highly evolved and complex species, with layers and layers of evolutionary finesse. We don’t strut our stuff like simians to flag down a mate. We don’t drape ourselves with eye-popping colours just to reel-in the creatures hovering around us. Nor do we brazenly announce our readiness to mate by radiating strong odours signalling our availability. No, sir. We’re too sophisticated and intelligent to indulge in this sort of crude mating dance. We favour subtle mood enablers such as champagne, sonnets and roses to woo our mates. We attract with our superior intelligence, seduce with our charm and engage with our fertile imaginations. We’re way too superior to be slaves to our hormones. After all, we’re thinking, sentient beings, are we not?

Turns out, we’re ‘scent-ient’ beings all right. “We are capable of discerning 10,000 different scents consciously,” says sex therapist Laura Berman. “And, there’s a whole realm of unconscious scents we’re not even aware of smelling.” Wait a minute. Does this mean humans might be driven by chemistry as much as intellect? Like jungle cats sniffing out their fearful prey, could humans also be guided by olfactory cues? According to cultural anthropologist Helen Fisher, every one of us has what scientists call an odour print, a unique smell-based coding system that is a function of our individual biology and brain circuitry. Our personal signature scent, much like our DNA. That’s how tracker dogs locate lost humans. Or, how a wailing baby seems placated when offered its mama’s T-shirt, especially if it’s a breastfed baby.

Following this trail, an interesting study done during the last US elections showed that women who were ovulating responded better to Barack Obama, but those at the other end of their monthly cycles were more likely to vote for Romney. CNN’s report on this study got scuttled, as it ‘trivialised presidential election results by hinging it on women’s ovulations rather than the far more substantive factors that guided the female voters’. Mind over matter, admonished the government, however compelling that chemical matter is.

Another literal eye-opener was the experiment done at the Weizmann Institute of Science, in Israel, in which women were made to watch a sad movie. Their tears were collected and placed as samples of unidentified fluid under men’s noses. Nope, it did not elicit empathy in the men as expected. Quite the opposite — one sniff of the fluid and the men lost their mojo. Their capacity for sexual arousal tanked, as their testosterone levels plummeted. Silently, but powerfully, the tears conveyed that romance was off the table.

Where’s this going? To Professor Manfred Malinski’s lab at the Max Planck Institute, in Germany. His game-changing experiment proved humans don’t necessarily make decisions on the basis of visual, cognitive and cerebral information. Our olfactory intuition plays agent provocateur. And, no, the experiment wasn’t called The Axe Effect. In 1995, Malinski replicated an old experiment that originally involved female mice sniffing out ideal mates from a group of males. The mice were able to smell out the most robustly suitable male mate that could provide the most optimum immunity genes to their offspring. Convinced that the human act of coupling is motivated by the exact same immunogene transfer, Malinsky set up a similar experiment with humans. A group of women were exposed to sets of clothes belonging to different men. They were asked to sniff and select a set they felt favourably towards. Every woman picked the clothes belonging to the man with the most different immunogene version from hers. Thus, ensuring the highest immunity to the progeny of this physical union, if it were to happen.

In case you’re wondering, here’s how this works. The body odours of primates correspond to a particular gene called the major histocompatibility complex (MHC), which plays a vital role in the immune system. Like fingerprints, no two individuals’ MHCs are identical. To create the fittest offspring, we need to find a mate with hugely different MHCs. That is the reason our bodies have evolved to advertise the chemical make-up of our MHCs, through our skin and its secretions. We are naturally attracted to those with the most dissimilar MHCs to ours. It is nature’s way of discouraging incest and inbreeding. Evolution, thy will be done.

But, back to the mysterious human snout. I can’t help wondering if the ancient Hindu princesses who participated in the ritual of swayamvar didn’t know a thing or two about the sniff and select test. They certainly seemed to pull off more enduring relationships, not to mention a battalion of healthy offspring. In fact, let’s rewind all the way back to the Egyptian pharaohs. Take a guess how adulterers were punished by the ancient Egyptians? Their noses were lopped off. Ditto in 17th- and 18th-century Europe. There is actually scientific data confirming that, for certain people, sexual arousal is accompanied by an itchy nose. This decade’s most successful drug for enhancing human libido is called Viagra, a word that apparently has its roots in a verb that means ‘to smell’.

So, there it is — proof that the quickest, most potent nonverbal communication among humans isn’t via touch, sight, sound or even cognition; it’s by scent. And, the chemical messengers in these scents are the hallowed pheromones. Pherein in Greek is ‘to bring or transfer’, and hormon means ‘to excite’. Pheromones are a bunch of airborne molecules made of body fluids and chemicals that elicit a potent reaction from a member of the same species. They send out signals about our moods, our sexual status and orientation as well as our genetic makeup. Our ancestors were able to map the world through scent. But, after we evolved to have colour vision, we were able to pick up on emotional changes such as blushing. And, our ability to perceive attraction or compatibility via pheromones dulled considerably over time. But, there are clear vestiges of this detector still in our DNA. When examined purely in the context of sex, pheromones could well be the most potent aphrodisiacs known to man. The multibillion-dollar perfume industry is thriving on this assumption.

And, we have Freud’s eccentric friend Wilhelm Fliess to thank for this. He proposed that the nose was the arousal trigger in humans, just like it was for the apes. The world scoffed at him. Humans don’t breed like apes, they fall in love. A century later we know that humans have pheromones, that pheromones unconsciously influence our sexuality, even drive our sexual behaviour. It took an artist, however, to bring this into sharp context by taking pheromones out of the lab and into the party.

A little over a year ago, American painter Judith Prays presented a creative option to the unfulfilling and often short-lived digital search for love. She invented the Pheromone Party. The Pheromone Party invites attendees to trade zip-locked bags with slept-in T-shirts, which are then circulated, sniffed and either passed on or kept and matched to the owner, depending on the response to the smell. Compared with other singles’ mixers and dating events, the results of these Pheromone Parties have been astounding. According to Prays, of the 40 guests who attended the first party, 12 reportedly hooked up, and half of those began serious romantic relationships. The trend has now swept across the Atlantic and flooded Europe. With growing statistics on ineffective choices of mates made by both the heart and the head, there seems to be enough takers for letting the nose take the lead.

Sadly, tropical countries like ours aren’t going to be very conducive to wholescale pheromone partying, given the local perspiration-inspiration ratio. But, nothing’s stopping you from reconnecting with your ancestors, the next time you step into a bar. Give your tired eyes a break and let the nose do the looking for a change. As the old song goes, ‘Love is in the air’, if you’re smart enough to pick it up. I agree with sexologist John Money when he says, “We seem to be a species that is struggling to reconcile to the existence of an advanced brain in the scented body of a naked ape.” So, shall we unmuzzle the beast within and take a walk on the wild side? Certainly looks as if it’s not all hogwash and nonscent, after all.

Priya Mirchandani is an independent writer and editor