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The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


Pheromone studies continue

By Amanda Noonan Heyman, Senior Writer

On a normal day in the pigsty, the grimy inhabitants are snorting, rolling around in the mud, waiting to become bacon and mindlessly having sex.

Everything is a lot less complicated for a pig, including copulation.


When a boar wants to mate, he starts secreting chemical substances capable of dictating sexual behavior, called pheromones. Most mammals, including humans, produce pheromones with varying degrees of potency.

Pig pheromones, however, have all the force of a preposterously-powerful cartoon magnet.

“Female pigs stand to attention, completely rigid, when they smell a specific chemical,” University of Wisconsin gynecology professor Dave Abbott said. “All the male has to do is come up to her and have sexual intercourse.”

Unfortunately for the sex-starved segment of humanity, human pheromones have the comparative strength of the floppy refrigerator magnets that places like Papa John’s and the DoIT Helpdesk give out for free.

“Humans don’t work like that,” said Abbott, who has studied pheromone effects in primates. “We have developed this brilliant thing called the cerebral cortex. Basically, we think too much for our pheromones to have that kind of effect.”

As most people will testify, attraction is usually based on more than a few sniffs. If a sweet-smelling prospect opens his or her mouth and emits a torrent of stupidity, you (probably) won’t be sharing a bed later on. On the other hand, pheromones might be the reason you struck up a conversation in the first place.

“I’d like to hope that men and women make decisions based on things other than how they smell, but it may get you talking to each other,” said UW psychology professor Charles Snowdon.

Human pheromones may not be overwhelmingly strong, but they certainly aren’t powerless. Reputable studies have shown these chemicals are responsible for the phenomenon called menstrual synchrony, which many women experience when close friends or roommates get their periods at the same time.

More controversial studies have found that men wearing pheromone-enhanced aftershave experienced more kissing and sexual activity than those wearing regular aftershave, that women with irregular menstrual cycles stabilized after repeatedly smelling male pheromones derived from underarm sweat, and that men are more attracted to women who are ovulating than women who are not ovulating.

“We think men are totally clueless at the conscious level about when women are menstruating, but they may be aware at a subconscious level,” Snowdon said.

Still, these studies are fiercely debated among those in the science world. The best answer most experts can give in response to the question, “How much power do pheromones actually have over human romantic relationships?” is a simple, “We just don’t know.”

What we do know

As sociology professor John DeLamater explained, human pheromonal activity is intrinsically harder to study than animal activity. Countless variables exist in any heterogeneous human social setting, which are absent from sterile lab rat or primate cages.

“It’s difficult because it’s hard to figure out how you would actually do the study,” DeLamater said.

While humans make research difficult, it’s not impossible. Scientists have used pheromone-soaked gauze pads worn under the nose and sweaty T-shirts to substitute for the real thing. Furthermore, other mammals seem happy to fill in the gaps, often with spectacular displays of pheromonal influence.

Chemically, pheromones are a class of substances similar to hormones. The difference is that hormones work inside of the body, whereas pheromones (from the Greek pheran, to transfer, and horman, to excite) are chemical signals that work outside of the body to influence other bodies.

Many mammals have a tiny nasal organ that picks up these pheromonal prompts, called the vomeralnasal organ, but researchers ferociously dispute whether or not humans possess the same organ.

Nevertheless, most scientists agree that individuals must be within a few feet of each other to receive pheromone signals. This is not the case for all living things, however; some female insects release lightweight, easily airborne pheromone particles so that males as far as a mile away can fly up the wind gradient to find a mate.

Humans don’t have quite the same range, but every person walks around in a virtual cloud of pheromones produced from both the underarm and genital areas. When we sweat, certain bacteria produce the chemicals by breaking down the perspiration on our skin’s surface.

However, smelly sweat isn’t usually seen as a turn on. One possible reason human sexual chemicals are less intoxicating than animal chemicals is that showering and other standard hygiene practices weaken the signals.

“It’s interesting that we pay really great attention to these regions in our hygiene by shaving and using deodorants,” Snowdon said. “We’re basically doing everything we can to overcome this cue.”

Although pheromones constitute a chemical family, the family tree has two appreciably different branches (male and female) as well as an infinite number of little leaflets.

Women’s pheromones are derived from the hormones progesterone and estrogen, while testosterone does the job for men.

Variation also exists within genders, and recent findings suggest individualized pheromone signatures may stem from an unlikely source ? the immune system.

“The sorts of bacterial populations you’ll have depends on your genotype, and those genes are highly variable in humans,” Abbott said. “There’s a whole plethora of different possible bacterial populations that normally live on our skin ? nice friendly bacteria that are normally part of our healthy existence.”

Some so-called “T-shirt studies,” which involve women sniffing T-shirts men exercised in the day before, have found women are attracted to the smell of men whose immune systems are most dissimilar from their own. Inversely, women were repelled by men who possessed similar immune systems.

“This generated an evolutionary theory,” DeLamater said. “If women are attracted to someone with a different immune system, this would increase the resistance of offspring and make them more likely to survive.”

While research reveals pheromones do play a role in humans’ complicated mating drama, they are primarily a supporting character. The human brain hogs the spotlight.

“We get to process and decide, which is not to say that we can’t be led by our pheromones or hormones,” Abbott said.

“It could be that everything is right, but we’re in a bloody awful mood and we just weren’t wanting to act on it positively. In non-primates that would not happen.”

Money-making opportunity

While scientists are careful to leave the pheromone question up in the air, perfume and drug manufacturers are less inclined to tiptoe around the subject.

Basically, some manufacturers want us to believe they can help both men and women make a party more like a pigpen.

Just typing “pheromones” into any major Internet search engine yields an array of links hawking pheromone colognes and perfumes.

One mixture, “Attractant Pheromone, $20,” claims, “Women can’t resist a man who wears Attractant ? Guaranteed.” Sex Pheromone Cologne vows it will “attract men and women with ease” and that it is “scientifically tested and proven.” Androsterone Human Pheromone Cologne and Perfume Concentrate Products promises “almost instant sexual attraction!”

Companies like these are using their funds for more than advertising. They also fund legitimate pheromone research.

“There’s not been a lot of research in this area, and if there really is a chemical that works, it would make them a lot of money,” DeLamater said. “Once you start to interact, [pheromones] might be one thing that plays a role in whether that interaction becomes more intense.”

In addition to perfume companies, pharmaceutical manufacturers are beginning to look to pheromones as a cash source.

A nasal spray called PH80, which appears to eliminate mild depression, ease irritability and ameliorate symptoms of PMS, could be in pharmacies in a few years if studies go well.

PH80 skips the bloodstream and goes directly to the brain, so it works faster than traditional antidepressants. Initial tests at the University of Pennsylvania showed rapid emotional and physical improvements after only one spritz of the spray.

Researchers inadvertently discovered the compound’s effects while testing for any reaction, and they still do not exactly know why the drug works. The FDA has not yet approved PH80 for commercial use.

Since pheromone research is still in the toddler stage, the future could bring an infinite number of applications, legitimate or not, Abbott said.

“People could pump them into the air systems of buildings to make people much more positive, or the opposite, much more agitated,” he said. “But the area of what chemicals can do to human physiology is still a bit murky.”

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