Monday, September 13, 2010

The Scent of Attraction

O kiss
of the lips
on the fruit,
and lips
a fragrant amber,
the liquid
light of the plum!

-Pablo Neruda, “Ode to the Plum”

Pablo Neruda was not merely weaving poetic eloquence when he likened the kiss of the lips to that of a fresh, sweet plum. Surely, such specific knowledge linking the fragrance of the plum to that of a moist kiss required some scientific observation. Either that or he had not abandoned the age old sense of smell and knew of the consequences that a potent odour can have on the soul. I’m inclined to opt for the latter, picturing him writing these verses under the quiet shade of a plum tree, guided by the wise hand of intuition and the experienced flare of the nostrils.

I don’t think it is a sweeping argument to say that most of the human race is at least at a subconscious level aware of the importance of smell in sexual attraction. However, a few with a keener nose understand that even a hint of a scent from a potential lover can conjure hallucinations of lusty proportions. I believe those insightful individuals are behind some of the most stirring aromas floating in glossy perfume bottles that so teasingly invite us to take a whiff. So, what can psychologists or more broadly scientists tell us that we don’t already know? Well, I guess it’s always nice to add some credibility to that whimsical temper of instincts and it can be amusing to see the extent that these serious folks would go to in order to prove something that we already knew! But, let us refrain from irony- some of their tedious methodologies can be quite creative.

My personal favourite is a 2003 study by Thornhill and colleagues in which they managed to persuade a bunch of relatively hygienic people to resist the temptation of showering for a whole week. This would have been a laughably easy task in the Middle Ages as showering was not considered a particularly healthy habit to cultivate! So, after these poor souls were freed to return to their hygienic pursuits, their shirts, dripping in the aroma of a week’s sweat were jealously confiscated by the prudent scientists. They were then systematically distributed to a group of other unsuspecting individuals who were given the enticing task of sniffing them. Clearly, the development of modern science is awe-inspiring. Nonetheless, the results are titillating.

When asked whose sweaty stench the individuals enjoyed the most, the overwhelming response was that men prefer the natural (to put it in softer terms) smell of pretty women than those that are less easy on the eye. The results are identical for women, who appear to like the scent of handsome men over their less jaw-dropping mates. In the caveman ages a more pleasing natural scent would have made a potential sexual partner more appealing thus making it more likely that they will engage in the blessed act of copulation (with an equally pleasant smelling partner I’m sure). Thankfully, these days we have fragrances in bottles that will mask any shortcomings our natural pheromones may exude, fooling our prey at least until the sweet liquid runs out.

However, perfumes cannot mask or accentuate the more subtle effects of smell that nonetheless have a profound influence on behaviour. For instance, Gildersleeve and Setterlund (2007) found that heterosexual men prefer the smell of women when they are just about to ovulate than at other times of the month. If you’re a woman searching the streets for your potential mate, I suggest you take note of this information and organise your outings according to your ovulation cycles. You will save a lot of unnecessary energy that could be spent doing something a lot more constructive. On the other hand, if you’re a gay man, be wary of the effects that your aroma produces on the heterosexual male. According to Martins and colleagues (2005) heterosexual men are not very fond of the homosexual man’s aroma, which smells much more delicious to other gay man.

Yet again, we must offer thanks to those sensible scientists and their thirst for clarity for they have equipped us with a full-proof recipe in the art of smells. But all your knowledge is not going to help unless you are willing to be unflinchingly honest with yourself. The next time you gaze into the mirror and see that familiar face gazing back at you, ask yourself does it lack symmetry? If so, you do not need to advertise. Simply, discreetly, reach for your most alluring fragrance and let its odorous powers unravel their magic. If, after scrupulous analysis you are assured of your symmetry in all its glory, feel free not to shower for a few days with the smug knowledge that your sweat has the power to lure potential lovers in.

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