Human Pheromones—Fact-or-Fiction

Pheromones are naturally occurring odorless substances the fertile body excretes externally, conveying an airborne signal that provides information to, and triggers responses from, the opposite sex of the same species. In 1986 Dr. Winnifred Cutler, founder of Athena Institute, and her colleagues conducted the first controlled scientific studies to document the existence of pheromones in humans. Prior to their landmark research, there were no conclusive indications that pheromones were excreted by humans. In animals, it had been known that pheromones served to promote behavior that perpetuated the species. Pheromones elicit unlearned behavioral or developmental responses from others of the same species – act to regulate sexual and reproductive behavior in many nonhuman mammals. We can see examples of this throughout the animal kingdom. The human body produces chemical secretions that have pheromonal properties.

What does science tell us? Do we produce pheromonal secretions? Men and women do have odor-producing apocrine glands in their underarm, nipple, and genital areas. Also, biochemists have isolated compounds that have pheromonal properties in pigs from the urine and sweat of men and, to a lesser extent, women. So, we give off body odor and our bodies excrete substances that pigs find sexually stimulating.

Assuming the human body can secrete pheromonal substances, are we capable of detecting them? Here, the evidence is a bit more solid. Scientists have found that human infants, children, and adults are able to discriminate between other individuals on the basis of olfactory cues – we can tell each other apart using our noses. It seems possible that we have the capacity to detect pheromones, should they exist.

The question that interests most of us, of course, is whether pheromones actually influence species perpetuation behavior. Certainly many perfumes and colognes contain pheromones or their synthetic equivalents from a variety of mammals, including the musk deer, civet cat, beaver, and pig. Studies find that exposure to these substances either has no effect at all or decreases sexual feelings among adults. So exposure to pheromones produced by other mammals doesn’t seem to do much for us. Pheromones are species-specific. Thus, it really isn’t surprising that exposure to nonhuman pheromones does not directly influence sexual attraction in humans. However, it is possible that these substances have an indirect effect on desire – a scent or odor may elicit a pleasant emotional response which, in turn, may increase sexual feelings. In addition, it is likely that a particular scent or odor that has been paired repeatedly with a sex partner or with sexual activity, for example, a specific brand of cologne or perfume may come to produce a learned desire response. Of course, these types of elicited or learned responses do not constitute a true pheromone reaction.

Science will continue to advance, and the quest to identify a human pheromone will undoubtedly go on. Maybe in a year or two, I’ll be able to post a new, updated entry that presents more conclusive evidence with respect to pheromones. Human sexuality is multifactorial, and much more complex. Our responses are much less biochemically-dependent than those of other mammals. Men and women don’t require the presence of a particular hormone or chemical secretion to feel desire, want sex, or become attracted to another member of the species. No single substance would have the power to produce those animalistic, primal sexual and aggressive behaviors.

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