Romance readers are familiar with chemical attraction – that unmistakable yet intangible sensation when your body recognizes your soul mate.
For horror and suspense writers, the most important chemical reaction is different: the scent of fear and hint of danger the hero detects that lets him react just in time to save his own life.
These may sound like cliches, but they’re based on real-life reactions our bodies have to pheromones.
Earlier this week I went to a lecture by Karl Grammar of the University of Vienna, one of the few scientists in the world studying human pheromones. He gave us an insight into how humans react to the scent of pheromones, and I thought some of it might be useful, or at least interesting, to my fellow writers.
Let me preface this by saying that I didn’t take notes on the scientific nitty-gritty, so some of what follows here may be educational while other parts will just sound strange. Take what you will and store it away – surely it’ll come in handy for a pub quiz one day.
What are pheromones?
Dr Grammar began by saying that in almost all animal species life is controlled by highly volatile substances made by the glands. These are pheromones. We breathe them in, and our olfactory system takes these scents (which we don’t even know we’re smelling) straight to the brain.
In other words, people give off these super subtle messages which our nose takes to our brain for interpretation.
What do pheromones help us do?
Pheromones help us do things like recognize our relatives, select our mates, and be aware when someone scary or aggressive is nearby.
We have hundreds – possibly thousands – of different pheromones. They’re transmitted through our skin; since we each have a unique genetic epidermal composition, our pheromones “smell” different. This makes it easier for us to identify our kin, but it also means romance novels are right: we can identify that one person who’s special to us, even if we can’t see them.
Weird pheromone facts
Humans have some of the same pheromones as other animals. For example, one of the pheromones men have is the same as a boar’s. Dr Grammar explained that when a female boar smells a male boar’s pheromones, she assumes the copulation position. “It doesn’t work like this for humans,” he said.
Women share a pheromone in common with wasps. Yep, women smell sorta like wasps, men smell like pigs, and no one knows why.