Can you smell that? Love is in the nose

New studies show that our brains receive scent messages from our noses that help us fall for that special someone.

Birds do it. Fish and mice do it. And to some degree, humans do it, too.

They pick their sexual partners by body odor.

In humans and other animals, each person’s natural scent is an expression of the genes that make up his or her immune system. Scientists have found people tend to prefer body odors of others with profiles that are different — but not too different — from their own.

From an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense: offspring with a variety of genes have a wider defense against disease.

Scientists have puzzled over how humans can detect the subtle chemical signals when we lack the super sensitive noses of other animals, such as dogs. A new study by German researchers  shows that even without powerful noses, the problem-solving part of our brains receives these messages and registers the differences between our scent and that of others.  

Johan Lundstrom, a psychologist at Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia who was not involved in the study, said scientists have uncovered many fascinating ways that humans are affected by body odor.

Women are more sensitive and choosy when it comes to a potential partner’s odor. The scent of strangers can put one’s amygdala, the brain’s fear center, on alert to potential threats. One study that appeared in Nature found women are attracted to the familiar scent of their fathers. 

Lundstrom said that in his native Sweden, there’s a term that loosely translates to "ugly sexy" — the intense attraction one feels for another person that is unexplained on the surface.

"You might have a strange attraction to someone and have a biological fit with this person" when it comes to immune system compatibility, he said.

However, he says it would be silly to think that this attraction trumps other factors, such as personality. "The real question is whether their behavior is something you can imagine waking up next to years down the line."

Judith Prays, 26, a Los Angeles-based artist and event planner, says she started thinking about the role of scent after trying to find a match online but striking out. She started dating the friend of a friend.

“I was so into how he smelled,” she said “But had I seen his profile online, I never would have chosen it. He wasn’t much of a writer. He wasn’t witty.”

On a whim, she organized a “pheromone party in Brooklyn, N.Y. She put the word out to single friends, telling them to bring a T-shirt they’d slept in for three nights, mimicking the now classic experiment by a Swiss zoologist  that launched the study of human chemical signaling.

At the party, T-shirts would be placed in numbered plastic bags and participants would smell the shirts of the opposite sex. If they found a scent attractive, they had their picture taken with the shirt. The next day, the photos were posted online. Party-goers could then arrange to meet the person who had picked out their scent.

The idea of choosing romantic partners by smell has caught on because it’s intuitive, said Prays. So far she’s hosted five parties and fielded inquiries from online dating sites and reality television shows to expand the idea.

The party’s rubric attracts people who are secure about their bodies — participants RSVP with a photo of their armpit — and open to new experiences.

“It’s more art than anything,” she said. “It’s really just a way to get the party started.”

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