November 7, 2006

McClintock discusses pheromones

The Center for Gender Studies hosted a lecture entitled “Human Scents and Pheromones: Effects on Fertility, Sexuality, and Emotions” last Thursday. The lecture was presented by Martha McClintock, the David Lee Shillinglaw Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of Psychology, Committees on Human Development, Neurobiology, and Evolutionary Biology.

The lecture focused on the way social interactions are embodied through the olfactory system. For instance, McClintock discussed an experiment in which study participants emitted different scents depending on the kinds of movies they watched.

The experiment subjects watched horror, comedy, and erotic movies. Researchers then collected the subjects’ T-shirts, cut them up into strips, and placed them into unmarked boxes. Experiment subjects who smelled the shredded shirts could accurately pair the scent with the associated genre of movie that had been watched.

McClintock discussed another experiment that tested the effect of pheromones on the menstrual cycles of women who live together. The phenomenon whereby these cycles become synchronized is an effect of pheromones that regulate the hormonal activity in the female body, she said.

Surprisingly, she said, it turns out that pheromones play a large role in the regulation of the human body, even though people do not necessarily have to be aware of a scent in order for it to have an effect.

McClintock also discussed a newly discovered chemical, called vasanas, after the Sanskrit word for “an unconscious impression left on the mind.” This chemosignal affects people’s social choices, for instance, by providing unconscious indicators of genetic affinities between people.