ATTRACTION...What is it? What makes it happen? Why can't it be stopped?

23 January 2012

In Physics class, we learn about many different forces of attraction. There’s gravitational force between 2 objects, and there’s magnetic force that is associated with electrical currents. In Chemistry, we learn about ionic forces that dictate the attraction between positively (+) and negatively charged (-) ions. But the force that governs attraction between individuals is, in my opinion, a study in BIOLOGY!

Admittedly, PHEROMONES are not the only factors or compounds that dictate the Laws of Attraction, but pheromones may influence the responses that they bring out from others who are nearby. Research shows that humans, animals and insects alike, are all responsive to pheromones that emanate from their own species. However, the exact nature and effects of pheromones in humans are controversial subjects, and is an active area of scientific and sociological research.

But first, let’s start with the pheromones themselves. What exactly are they? Pheromones are chemical compounds that are made by the body, and are very similar to hormones. Both hormones and pheromones act as “messengers” that give instructions on what to do. The difference is that hormones, such as testosterone and insulin, work within an individual’s body to tell organs how to function, while pheromones are delivered through the environment to other individuals who are nearby.

It’s like this: Imagine a house as a self-contained body. You are at home with your friend, and you decide that you want the two of you to meet up with another friend at the mall. First, you tell your friend sitting beside you: “Come with me to the mall”. That message would be similar to the action of a hormone, since the message didn’t have to leave your house. Then, you pick up the phone, call your other friend and say the same, “Come with me to the mall”. Since this message had to travel outside of your house to get to your friend’s home, the message in the telephone call would be similar to the action of a pheromone.

The action of pheromones is better studied in insects than in humans. One of the best known examples of pheromone-action has been observed for the Bombyx mori (silkworm) moth. The females of this species release a chemical signal into the environment called bombykol. Since she releases this pheromone, the amount of bombykol is highest right beside the female and decreases exponentially at distances that are further away. The male moths have special detectors in their antennae, and can locate the female by the concentration gradient of bombykol that is in the air. As he detects higher and higher concentrations of the pheromone, the male moth knows that he is on the right track, and that he is getting closer to the female. Basically, the female uses her ability to produce bombykol as a lure to attract males of her species. It’s similar to following the scent of perfume or cologne! Although it doesn’t work in exactly the same way in humans, there is some similarity between these moths and humans at the levels of pheromone production and detection.

As I’ve already mentioned, pheromones are chemical messengers that are delivered through the air to people in the surrounding environment. Since pheromones are produced inside the body by glands in the armpit and pubic regions, they piggyback with the body’s sweat to be carried out of the body. Once outside of the body, pheromones evaporate and travel through the air where other people in the vicinity encounter them.

(Note: for more information on sweat and scent, see January’s issue of Sportology.)

But, production and release of pheromones only make up one half of the equation. How does a person respond to pheromones? The other half of this complex equation of Attraction is still not fully understood, but, a tiny organ in the nose is thought to be our pheromone “detector”. This organ is known as the vomeronasal organ (or VNO for short), and is connected to the brain. The VNO signals to the brain when human pheromones are in the air, and the brain, in response, reacts. How the brain reacts to the pheromones detected by the VMO plays a role in Attraction.

Evidence suggests that pheromones don’t carry out their function by blatantly telling you brain whether or not you are attracted to nearby “pheromone emitters”. Rather, stimulation of the VNO by pheromones may trigger the brain to alter various reproductive behaviours. Examples include: release of hormones that are involved in reproductive physiology, increased/expedited menstrual cycles for women, and changes in libido (sex drive). All of these pheromone-induced physiological changes are implicated in the process of sexual attraction.

So, to answer the question about the nature of Attraction: it can be described, in part, as a biological response to a chemical signal. As for the question: “Why can’t it be stopped?”…Unfortunately, the production and release of pheromones is a natural bodily function, and is not within our ability to turn on or off. One thing you can try, however, is plugging your nose!


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