Writing in the online magazine Slate last week, Dr. Randi Hutter Epstein shatters yet another pervasive media myth about human biology: the idea that our bodies excrete odors — pheromones — that work as chemically charged mating signals.
“If only it were so,” writes Epstein.
Pheromones, in scientific parlance, are aromatic chemicals emitted by one member of a species that affect another member of the same species, either by altering its hormones or by compelling it to change its behavior. When they work, they are truly bewitching. For instance, when a female silkworm moth wants to get her guy, she sprays a chemical called bombykol from her abdominal gland and her targeted male transforms into a sex slave, trailing the scent until he mounts her. It’s an enviable feat. Still, it’s a big leap to extrapolate from bugs to people — or even to lab mice, for that matter. No scientific study has ever proven conclusively that mammals have pheromones.
“The whole pheromone thing got picked up by the mass media,” says Richard Doty, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Smell and Taste Research Center and author of The Great Pheromone Myth. It feeds into our need to believe, he said, that there “is all this subliminal stuff going on that is affecting us — who we mate with, who we want to be with. It’s this mythical perspective.” And marketers, like women’s magazines, are only too happy to exploit that myth. That’s how a whole junk-science industry of pheromone-perfumes, pheromone-soaps, and pheromone cosmetics managed to spring up from a strange menagerie of misconstrued mammal studies.
One company promises, for example, that the “biologically active” pheromones in its products will “act as a love potion, attracting the man to a woman — even if the man might not have otherwise been interested in the woman on the basis of her looks or the sound of her voice.”
Sadly, women fall for such sales pitches. But men do, too. As Epstein points out, Dial sells an androstenedione body wash that claims to attract women.
The history behind the start of scientific and medical myths is always interesting. The pheromone myth began, reports Epstein, half a century ago when an English psychiatrist and primate researcher, Richard Michaels, believed he had found vaginal chemicals in rhesus monkeys that attracted males of the species. He dubbed these chemicals copulins, from “copulate.” (The term “pheromone” was coined in 1959 by two German scientists to describe what was going on in insects.) Subsequent research by Michaels and others showed that copulins did not have this attraction effect in humans or other primates, but by then the myth that pheromones offered a subliminal way of making individuals more appealing to the opposite sex had taken hold.
It had also become a big and profitable marketing ploy.
“A true human pheromone would have universal appeal across the species,” writes Epstein. “But the latest research on olfaction hints that our smell systems are much more individualized than we ever imagined.”
“This shift in thinking is really quite liberating,” she adds. “It means, for one thing, that we may have more complicated relationships with our men than a female silkworm moth has with hers.”
You can read Epstein’s article on Slate’s website.