Finding love by sight and smell

Michael Huckabee, Ph.D. | February 14, 2014

Image with file name: Michael Huckabee Ph.D. (2)8.jpg

Why is love elusive for some while others stumble upon the real thing barely trying? Research continues to explore the skill of finding that special someone, and it may not be as much about what we know, but about what we sense. See if you have a nose for love, or if it’s love at first sight.

Smelling attraction. All animals have pheromones, those natural chemical secretions that we minutely secrete (and some animals excrete) to trigger a social response within species. That’s why dogs sniff the yard, searching for alarm pheromones, food trail pheromones, and sex pheromones. Insects are famous for their pheromones, such as the honeybee that attracts a swarm by broadcasting its scent.

The vomeronasal organ, typically buried high up in the nose, best tracks the pheromones. It’s called Jacobson’s organ in you and I, though there’s still debate on if it really exists in humans.

Research on detecting pheromones using unwashed underwear is referred to as sweaty T-shirt studies. That descriptive title finds that women prefer the smell of men whose immune systems differ from their own.

Also using the T-shirt method, another study showed women lean toward men who smell like their own fathers. Together these results suggest that a woman seeks a mate from a similar gene pool but also one who offers a wider range of immunity, a benefit to future offspring.

Pheromone sprays for men and women are actively sold across the internet. Though not recommended here, these pitches have price tags of $70 or more with promises of finding increased confidence and trust in partners, or even edgier relationships.

Opposites don’t attract? Finding the right mate may be tied to visual cues of facial features. An experiment first determines an individual’s personality type of introvert or extravert, and then twenty pairs of faces are shown and rated by preference. The measure shows that individuals prefer faces that represent their own personality type. When I tried it, I wound up having an 80 percent preference for faces matching my personality type. Try the 10-minute study yourself. 

The eyes have it. For a couple decades scientists have used the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test (RMET), which requires individuals to determine the mental state of a person by looking at photographs of people’s eyes. The test helps diagnose impairments in social cognition such as autism or schizophrenia. Results can also determine social affiliation, e.g., we are drawn to those that we can mind-read, knowing their thoughts or feelings just by seeing their eyes.

Science shows us how to enhance this mind-reading ability.

A nasal spray containing the oxytocin hormone, (again, readily available over the internet) enhances performance on the RMET, with one caveat.

In a well done Dutch study published last month, the benefit of oxytocin was only found in individuals who suffered maternal love withdrawal in their upbringing.

This discipline tactic occurs when a mother expresses personal disappointment in her child’s behavior. Too much of this and the child may grow up facing emotional dysfunction. It is measured by an affirmative response to statements such as, “My mother is a person who, when I disappoint her, tells me how sad I make her.” Only those who reported a childhood of maternal love withdrawal had higher RMET scores after using the oxytocin spray.

These studies suggest we are born with natural talents to find our soul mate. Rather than buying hormones off the Internet, maybe we just need to be sure we’re out in the gene pool to let nature take its course.

Through world-class research and patient care, UNMC generates breakthroughs that make life better for people throughout Nebraska and beyond. Its education programs train more health professionals than any other institution in the state. Learn more at and follow us on social media.

Twitter  |  Facebook  |  Pinterest  |  YouTube