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It's the scent of love: As many as three-fourths of women and two-thirds of men say they snuggle with shirts and other clothing worn by someone dear, but not near, researchers reported.
By contributor
updated 1/7/2009 8:04:25 AM ET 2009-01-07T13:04:25

Whenever her boyfriend goes out of town, Peggy Loper makes sure he leaves one of his worn — but unwashed — T-shirts behind. At night, as she snuggles with the shirt, Loper is comforted and transported. “I put it over the pillow so it’s next to my face,” says the 48-year-old law-school student from Salem, N.J. “It’s like having my head on his chest.”

Loper is not alone in her use of scent to evoke vivid memories of a loved one. As many as three-quarters of women say they snuggle with shirts and other clothing worn by someone dear, but not near, researchers reported in a study published in the December issue of the Journal of Applied Social Psychology. Even more striking was the data on men: A full two-thirds of men admitted to cuddling with clothing.

To learn more about how ordinary people used body scents to evoke memories, researchers from the University of Pittsburgh rounded up 121 night school students. The students were asked several questions, including whether they’d ever intentionally smelled another person’s clothing to remember or feel closer to him or her, whether they’d ever slept with (or in) another person’s clothing because it smelled like him or her and whether they’d ever given an article of unlaundered clothing to a loved one because it smelled like them.

Although the students mostly reported smelling or sleeping with the clothing of a romantic partner, some said they had also gotten comfort from smelling the clothing of a child or other close relative.

The scent of love
The findings seem to run counter to what you’d expect from a culture inundated with products designed to obliterate personal scents, from deodorant to mouthwash. Even the researchers were surprised to see how many people use smell to conjure up a loved one’s memory.

“It’s the kind of thing that never really comes up in normal conversation,” says the study’s lead author, Melanie Shoup, now a doctoral student at the State University of New York at Albany. “But when I was going through high school and college, I would wear a boyfriend’s shirt to bed when I was separated from him. And when I asked my friends, they said they had done similar things.”

Some of the study subjects provided specifics, such as a father who smelled his baby daughter’s clothes to feel close to her and a woman whose boyfriend sent unlaundered shirts back from Iraq in plastic bags to preserve his scent.

Students also talked about memories evoked by a dead person’s belongings. People would say that as they were going through a relative’s clothing, the scent on the clothes would suddenly hit them. “It was almost like a presence,” Schoup says.

Scientists who study the influence of chemicals that can be detected by the nose — some of these substances have an effect, but no obvious smell — aren’t surprised by the study’s results. Part of the explanation might be that scent has a direct line to our memory centers.

“The part of the brain that processes odor flows right into the part of the brain that is involved in emotion and memory,” says Martha McClintock, a University of Chicago psychologist.

The nose always knows
McClintock’s been hot on the scent of scent since she discovered the hormone — detected by the nose — that causes women to synchronize menstrual cycles. More recent studies have shown that women prefer the scents of men who were more ethnically close.

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“One of the things we may be picking up is kin recognition through smell,” says McClintock. “People find the scent of kin more pleasant than non-kin.”

That may explain why some people in the new study were comforted by the scent of clothing from close relatives, McClintock adds.

Smells can be more evocative than visual or auditory signals, experts say. And that may be because the olfactory bulb and the limbic system, the brain region responsible for processing emotions, are among the most ancient parts of the brain, says Philip R. Muskin, a professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University.

The physical proximity of these brain regions might add some immediacy to the link between a scent and the emotion it evokes. “Scents really pull us in, in a way that may not be consciously apparent,” Muskin says. “We detect a scent and immediately feel something.”

Just think how quickly a certain scent can bring back memories of an old boyfriend or girlfriend, he adds. And these memories can be quite powerful, Muskin says.

“I had an aunt who wore very heavy perfume,” he adds. “When she passed away, her sister gave us one of her jewelry cases. Whenever you open it, the scent of her perfume just rushes out. And for an instant, it’s like she’s there.”

Linda Carroll is a health and science writer living in New Jersey. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsday, Health magazine and SmartMoney.

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