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Follow your nose: How body odors control our behavior

How body odors control our behavior

Not only our choice of partner but also the choice of our friends is determined by our sense of smell. But that’s not all. Or did you know what the smell of tears can do to you?

There’s something animalistic about sniffing. Animals may sniff each other intensively, for example, to determine whether the other person is ready to mate – but we humans? nope!

Anatomist Paul Broca was instrumental in shaping this nose-sniffing view of the impact of body odor on human behavior. As early as the 19th century, he attributed an underdeveloped sense of smell to humans, which was to be understood as a compliment: those blessed with intelligence and free will can probably do without smells as information carriers.

Although olfactory research is still in a niche today, one thing is now clear: we not only constantly sniff at ourselves and others – what we smell also has a decisive influence on our behavior. Even if we stick with Paul Broca and ignore the sense of smell, it controls us.

What smells trigger in humans

These are the reasons Laura Schäfer finds smells so exciting. She is a research assistant in the clinic and polyclinic for psychotherapy and psychosomatics at the TU Dresden. “The sense of smell is the oldest sense in the human perception system and is directly linked to the limbic system – the area in the brain where emotions are processed,” explains Schäfer.

So what we smell has a direct impact on our feelings.

In this way, smells can help control our feelings and behavior. The Israeli neurobiologist Noam Sobel describes in a study that the smell of a woman’s tears caused men to drop their testosterone levels. This was associated with lower sexual arousal in most men. Tears contain a chemo signal that we can only unconsciously perceive through our sense of smell and that still has an impact.

Similarly, unconsciously, we can read fear, aggression, stress, and happiness from other people’s body odors. The choice of a partner is also made with the help of the nose – and friendships also have their roots in body odor.

You smell like me, friend!

Inbal Ravreby, who works with Noam Sobel at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, recently published a study on this. “We know that friends are often alike in many ways. They’re similar in personality, but they’re also often alike genetically. So we wanted to know if we’re more likely to make friends with people whose body odor is similar to ours,” says Ravreby.

The researchers examined the body odor of people who were already friends and found: good friends, with similar smells.

Now, body odor could only play a subordinate role in the choice of friends. The researchers also checked this and analyzed the body odors of various test subjects in order to then make a prediction as to which people would be most likely to “click”.

To determine this, the researchers used the so-called “mirror game”. In this experiment, two people face each other, are not allowed to speak to each other, and try to mirror each other’s hand and arm movements. The better two people understand each other, i.e. it “clicked” between them, the more fluid and synchronous the movements are.

“The prediction was correct 71 percent of the time,” says Ravreby. This enormous influence of body odor surprised even the researcher.

Incidentally, it is not important to find someone who uses the same soap or the same perfume. While these things affect body odor, we all have a unique smell — like a fingerprint, says Ravreby.

“In fact, we particularly like the scent of a shampoo or perfume when it enhances components of our own body odor,” says Ravreby.

The scent of the baby has a bonding effect

The psychologist Laura Schäfer also examined the connecting effect that body odors can have in a study with parents and their children. Like many baby animals, newborn babies have the most developed sense of smell. Babies recognize their mother by smell long before they can even see reasonably clearly.

Schäfer’s theory was that the mother-child relationship is also strengthened by the fact that parents particularly enjoy smelling the smell of their offspring. She, therefore, checked whether mothers can distinguish the smell of their own child from that of other children and whether they particularly like this smell. And whether this maternal smell preference changes over the course of childhood.

Until the little ones were about nine years old, the mothers happily and reliably sniffed out their offspring from a group of other children. Then something changed: With the onset of early puberty and the rise in testosterone levels, mothers of sons found it increasingly difficult to recognize their boys by their smell – and to like that smell.

A mother gives her son milk from a bottle
A mother gives her son milk from a bottle

When the child is still small, the mother-son bond is also strengthened by the smell of the baby and that of the mother.

To the reassurance of all mothers and sons, Schäfer observed that this dislike did not last. By adulthood at the latest, mothers were able to smell their sons again. The psychologist also took a close look at fathers’ smell preferences. The study is currently going through the review process and is expected to be published soon.

One explanation for the intermittent rejection of the smell of the sons could be the hormones that seep out of every pore during puberty and completely alienate the note that was once felt to be familiar and genetically close. But Schäfer points out that the results of her study leave a lot of room for discussion and further investigation must follow.

Compared to what science knows about other senses like sight, the science of smell is still in its infancy. Scientists Schäfer and Ravreby both say we should value our sense of smell more and hope for more research.

But what we can say with certainty is that, contrary to what Paul Broca suggested, when it comes to the influence of smell, humans are just animals too.

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