Pheromones – are we looking the the wrong place?

pheromonesA pheromone is a chemical substance released  by a non-human mammal or an insect which affects the behaviour or physiology of others of its species. Most of the search for human pheromones has focused on their role in attracting members of the opposite sex, even though in animals and insects they have also been shown to affect the feeding behaviour of ants and baby rabbits are known to begin nursing when exposed to a specific pheromone from a lactating mother rabbit.  If you search for ‘pheromones’ on the web, it is quite likely that a picture like the one above will pop up, and you will be encouraged to buy ‘X perfume spray, which contains the highest possible concentrate of known human pheromones, to make you irresistible to the opposite sex.’ Wow!

Of course this statement is probably true, as the total numbers of known human pheromones is exactly zero. There are no known human pheromones, and Tristram Wyatt is one researcher who says that scientists are looking in the wrong place for them.  In his TED talk he points out that rather than thinking about sex, we should be thinking about breast feeding  and the secretions from those tiny little white bumps in the areolae around the nipples of both men and women. It is over nine years since the secretion from these glands in lactating women was shown to act on newborn babies, causing them to wake and suckle.  Research by Doucet et al. (2009) shows that this is true of  any newborn and any woman, which means, like a pheromone, this is action at species level, rather than individual level.

So, while the perfume spray may attract one or two members of the opposite sex, it is not because of the human pheromones in there. In fact this is not where the real action is at all. In his most recent article, Wyatt argues that we should go back to the beginning and focus on a possible human mammary pheromone, rather than wasting any more time thinking about attracting others through chemical secretions. Sounds like a plan!

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