Love skews your sense of smell
When you’re in love, everything seems different – and that includes your sense of smell. Women who are deeply in love struggle to recognise the body odour of male friends, but
their ability to distinguish their partner’s smell is unaffected.
Body odours are known to play a role in human sexual attraction. But how does falling in love affect our perception and processing of these smells?
To find out, Johan Lundström and Marilyn Jones-Gotman of McGill University in Montreal, Canada, asked a group of 20 young women with boyfriends to fill in a Passionate Love Scale
questionnaire (pdf format) to determine just how much in love they were. Meanwhile, the women’s partners and male and female friends slept for a seven nights in a cotton T-shirt with
pads sewn into the underarms to soak up their sweat.
In a series of trials, each woman was asked to pick out their lover’s or a friend’s T-shirt from three garments, two of which had been worn by strangers. The women’s scores on the
Passionate Love Scale made no difference to their ability to recognise a lover’s shirt, or that worn by a female friend. But those who were more deeply in love were less good at
distinguishing a male friend’s odour from those of strangers.
The deflection theory
This backs a theory of romantic attraction known as “deflection”, which argues that being in love with someone entails a reduction in the amount of attention we give to other potential
But different mechanisms may be at play with the other senses. Previous brain imaging work has suggested lovers do focus more attention on each other, judging from their reactions to
pictures of each other as opposed to those of friends of the opposite sex.
Lundström, now at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, next plans to investigate what happens in lovers’ brains as they perceive the odours of their partners, friends
and strangers. “I’m not really a love guru,” he admits. “The main focus of the project is to look at how the brain processes odours.”
“It’s an interesting starting point for more work,” agrees Claus Wedekind of the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, who ran a pioneering study of body odour and human attraction
back in 1995.
Journal reference: Hormones and Behavior