Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Smell, Body Odor, and Attraction

Shana Lebowitz wrote "The Biology of Body Odor," which has some relevance to the topics of this blog.
The biology behind body odor is pretty tricky, but it’s partially based on three types of glands that contribute to odors. Sweat glands exist all over the body and kick into gear when we exercise, become overheated, or feel anxious. Sebaceous glands are also found throughout the body and only start producing their oily liquid during puberty. Apocrine glands, located mostly in the armpit and pubic regions, and also start acting up around adolescence and can cause some serious stink. Steroids in apocrine secretions, especially the ones that come from the armpit, are some of the biggest culprits behind adult B.O. But — here’s a real shocker — sweat and other secretions don’t actually smell. Sweat, sebaceous, and apocrine glands secrete volatile organic chemicals, and odors arise when these “VOCs” interact with bacteria on the skin, in hair follicles, and in the mouth.
While it might be possible to avoid bad B.O. by steering clear of certain foods, how we smell is largely based on genetic factors.
Got that? There may be a pop quiz.
Body odor also has a lot to do with romantic attraction — beyond the fact that it’s a good idea to deodorize before a date. Sweat, skin oils, and other secretions release pheromones, molecules that help animals communicate. In humans, pheromones can convey important information about who’s a potential match — no OkCupid profile required.
Hey, no kidding. I love the smell of a woman, myself.
Women find high-testosterone odors more attractive when they’re most fertile, while men find fertile women smell sexiest.
These are broad generalizations, of course.
Back in the caveman days, our nostrils may have also helped us avoid incest. It’s still not clear whether family members can recognize each other’s smells, and people might only develop the ability once they hit adulthood. Some research suggests humans are especially skilled at sniffing out same-sex siblings.
It is possible that way back when, groups that did not experience the Westermarck Effect were more likely to be wiped out by disease. Life has changed much since then, but there are still people who do not experience a strong Westermarck Effect, at least not strongly enough to override attraction. We also tend to see that genetic relatives who aren't raised together may be strongly attracted to each other, and they often cite each other's scent as one reason why.
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1 comment:

  1. The interesting thing is, people with GSA frequently report their partner's smell hitting them really strongly, creating an almost instant attraction. It supports some argument for a learned aversion to certain smells. If you don't grow up around that person, their smell may be extra attractive. This would also explain why people aren't equally affected by GSA for every relative they reunite with. GSA may also be related to immuno-compatibility. I'd be curious if people who experience GSA are more genetically compatible with the family they feel it for than the ones they don't.


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