Love Is All in Your Head -- Or Is It in Your Genes?
Feb. 14, 2001 -- Legend has it that when Napoleon Bonaparte wrote Josephine to arrange a love tryst, he said, "I'm coming home -- please don't wash." Recent research on the scientific basis of love suggests that the famous general may have been onto something that guaranteed his success in the bedroom as well as on the battlefield.
Armpit sweat broken down by bacteria may not sound very appealing, but that's the origin of pheromones, those elusive, odorless chemicals given off in response to sexual stimulation or even romantic fantasy. In animals including mice, dogs, and insects, these chemicals attract the opposite sex and initiate mating behavior.
"In humans, the effect is quite different, because they have to inhale their own pheromone for it to work," Peter Pugliese, MD, PhD, tells WebMD. From the nose, the pheromone travels to a part of the brain involved in emotions and sex drive.
"This makes the person aware of their own attractiveness and allows them to project a heightened sense of approachability," says Pugliese, a private skin physiology consultant to Philosophy Cosmetics. "In married couples, pheromones might cause a renewed interest in the other person, leading to feeling closer and being more attentive -- not necessarily to sex."
But don't write off the power of pheromones as an aphrodisiac just yet. A 1998 study from the Athena Institute for Women's Wellness Research in Chester Springs, Pa., documented the sexual activity of 38 young to middle-aged heterosexual men while using pheromones. Users of pheromones, but not of an inactive control substance, had increased frequency of informal dates, affectionate gestures, sleeping next to a romantic partner, foreplay, and sexual intercourse.
As frequency of masturbation did not change, the researchers concluded that pheromones increased the sexual attractiveness of men to women, and therefore sexual behaviors requiring the woman's interest and cooperation, rather than sex drive itself.
Hoping to capitalize on the purported effects of pheromones, Philosophy Cosmetics markets an odorless elixir of pheromone concentrate called "Falling in Love," for women only, to increase their sense of well-being.
Evidence, albeit unsubstantiated, from Victoria's Secret suggests "spectacular results" in women using the product, even those who considered themselves to be unattractive, Pugliese says.
Before you rush out to buy stock in this company, though, be advised that scientists are still arguing over whether humans even have a specialized sensory organ that detects pheromones, known in rodents as the "vomeronasal organ." In last month's issue of Annual Reviews of Psychology, Richard L. Doty, PhD, a professor of otorhinolaryngology at the Smell and Taste Center of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, reviewed the evidence and called it "controversial."
"Humans might have similar [structures] in the nerve cells lining the nose, but we don't yet know how they're activated," says Frank Zufall, PhD, an associate professor of anatomy and neurobiology at the University of Maryland in Baltimore.