When you're turned on by your partner's scent, taking a deep whiff of her chest or neck feels like taking a powerful medicine. Body odor isn't the be-all and end-all of attraction, but it is an important factor. Scientists have studied the smell-disabled to see how they differ from the rest. The researchers found that the men with anosmia had five times fewer sexual partners than the healthy men. The women with anosmia had about the same number of partners as the healthy women, but more relationship insecurity. The nose is a sexually interactive organ; it tends to run when we get aroused. "The French take the subject so seriously they even have a word for the scent of a woman when perfume is mingled with her body oils, pheromones and sweat and heat: her cassolette."
Researchers collected sweat from volunteers to capture their body odor while in neutral mood, or in fear, happiness or arousal. Then they gave the sweat samples to either a stranger, or a partner. Though participants couldn’t distinguish between specific emotions, they could distinguish between neutral and moody odors. The partners were able to do it better than strangers. Scientists collected the tears from women watched a sad movie, and when they wafted the tears under the noses of male subjects, the response was a decline in testosterone levels and sexual arousal. Yes the nose, knows. But the power of scent doesn’t mean that you can use it as an instant shortcut to find your soul mate.
Very related to our recent conversations, I got to re-visit Invisible You, the exhibit on the microbiome developed by the American Museum of Natural History that has now travelled to the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. I visited the Museum at the same time to develop a piece specifically on the microbiome of the city and its inhabitants.
There was a lot to discover about the role of odor in relationships! Turns out the same lab I was collaborating with, already had been focusing on that exact topic. The Museum produced a section of the exhibit especially on the topic. Here is a summary of what I learned:
I’m not sure we can assume that good bacteria don’t smell bad though. I’m also not sure that we can distinguish bacteria that contribute “positively” or “negatively” to our body odor.
This information completes the connection from what makes us individuals (our DNA, our behavior) and our smell: the microbiome. Our unique DNA and our behavior impacts the microbiome that flourishes on our skin. The microbiome then generates our unique body odor, playing a determinant role in relationships with other humans and other organisms.
Can we look at the microbiome of a couple to determine whether they are a match? How does a couple’s microbiome evolve from before they know each other to years after getting together?
Are there microbes of love?
Pooneh and I discussed the idea of culturing clothing of people in a couple, to examine how their microbes would interact. Is there a signal in the microbes that signals a positive relationship?
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Pooneh Heshmati is an award-winning cognitive neuroscientist, physician, and post doctoral researcher at Northwell Health in New York.
Joana Ricou is an award-winning NYC-based artist, and creative director of Regenerative Medicine Partnership for Life.