Jan. 23, 2013 at 8:51 PM ET
Natural body odor plays a more important role in human mate selection than we realize, and now a new study paves the way for manufactured love-potion scents that can help singles improve their chances of finding ideal mates.
The study, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, found that people like their own body odor, and gravitate to perfumes that match and enhance that unique smell for themselves and possible mates. This odor is recognized subconsciously, so it's not necessarily the more pungent sweat smells that emerge every so often due to bacteria, consumption of certain foods, and other contributing factors.
When purchasing perfume, "you must be very selective to find a mixture that mimics your (scent) signal, which is determined by a few genes," lead author Manfred Milinski of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology, told Discovery News. "People take a long time to find 'their perfume.'"
For the study, Milinski and his team created perfumes with synthetic molecules associated with female student volunteers. The volunteers were asked to shower using a provided soap, apply a different type of perfume to each of their armpits, and wear an untreated cotton T-shirt at night.
When later asked to evaluate each armpit's scent, the participants preferred the one with synthetic compounds that enhanced their own natural odor. They disliked the one treated with molecules associated with another person’s scent.
This is your brain on odors
Brain imaging found that "self" odors activated the right middle front of the brain, a region associated with emotional balance, self-insight and more.
Humans appear to prefer their own smell and amplify that scent for others, particularly potential mates. It's somewhat comparable to lipstick, where women enhance the size, shape and color of their own features.
When selecting mates, we tend to prefer individuals with odors that complement our particular immune-related molecules, according to the researchers.
"The present wisdom of evolutionary biology is that we and other animals reproduce sexually because only in this way can we survive the race with infectious diseases," Milinski said. "This means choosing a partner with complementary immunogenes is the purpose of sexual selection. Probably, in all vertebrates, information about one’s immunogenes is transmitted by smell. Thus odor is extremely important."
Lucking into love potions
For ages, people have selected perfumes, colognes and other scents to enhance their own natural odor. In many cases, individuals probably successfully created "love potions" in this trial-by-error way by subconsciously making the right natural compound matches.
Many of today’s perfumes and colognes, however, are made with manufactured chemical ingredients.
The researchers believe they have overcome that fake perfume problem by synthesizing chemicals that "are identical to the original" chemical structures of natural human body odors. These make possible future love potion fragrances, tailor-designed for individuals.
Men might want to take note: Other research found that female mammals follow their noses to the right mates. Cambridge zoologist Tim Clutton-Brock and Harvard researcher Katherine McAuliffe found that olfactory cues are critical for females seeking mates.
Although humans preen, strut and sometimes sing, birds have evolved more elaborate visual and sound systems for mating, such as complex peacock tails and singing ability among all individuals of some species.
Clutton-Brock and McAuliffe therefore think that many mammals seeking mates rely more upon their ability to sniff out good genetic matches.
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