Passing the smell test

Romantic love skews heterosexual females’ ability to sniff out potential partners, McGill postdoc’s study finds

Love can skew women’s scent recognition when it comes to male body odour, according to a recent study published in the December 2008 issue of Hormones and Behavior.

The study, “Romantic love modulates women’s identification of men’s body odors,” which was carried out by McGill postdoc student Johan Lundström under the supervision of Professor Marilyn Jones-Gotman, states that the more in love heterosexual female participants claimed to be with their male partners, the worse they were at identifying the body odour of another potential partner, such as a male friend. However, the magnitude of love reported had no effect on the ability to detect the scent of female friends, because, in the case of this heterosexual female-centred study, they were not viewed as potential romantic partners.

Lundström, who is no longer a McGill student and is now working at Monell Chemical Senses Centre in Philadelphia, wrote in an email to The Daily that the inspiration behind the study was based upon anecdotal observations regarding body odours combined with his academic interests.

“You really like smelling your partner’s body odour, and when really in love, you don’t particularly like the body odour emitted by others,” Lundström said.

“The focus of my research regarding body odours is to determine what form of social and biological signals are hiding within [them], and how are we able to extract and process these [olfactory] cues,” he added.

The study’s representative sample consisted of 20 couples, along with a male and a female friend of each female partner.

According to Jones-Gotman, a professor in McGill’s Department of Neurology and Neurosurgery, and specialist in the neural correlates of smell and taste, who oversaw Lundström’s study, only female partners were evaluated because of their greater sensitivity to scent recognition. She stated that the findings would not be valid if the results from male and female partners were compared in the same study.

“The ability for scent recognition is not always the same between sexes,” Jones-Gotman noted, adding that women are better at detecting scents in general.

Jones-Gotman also said that she did not think the results would have been much different had a larger sample group been used. However, she noted the need to address the question of how the use of same-sex couples would change the outcome of such a study, adding that a study using same-sex couples is the logical next step as a continuation of Lundström’s work.

Jones-Gotman also suggested doing a study of couples in more short-term relationships, lasting six months or less, or longer ones, lasting up to seven years. These results could then be compared to those of Lundström’s more recent study, in which subject couples had been in a relationship for one to three years.

Lundström has his own plans for future behavioural studies investigating the ways our brains process partners’ body odours.

“We have already investigated how maternal love is manifested in the brain in [the] lab here at [the University of Pennsylvania]…. This is a logical extension of [such a] line of research,” he said.

Beyond his initial personal interest in the subject, Lundström also argued that his work is important in more concrete ways.

“This goes to show that even such complex emotions such as love [are] but a part of a more complex network of emotions and psychobiological processes, and that our sense of smell is capable of conveying complex information,” he said.

However, Lundström is not suggesting that his study may be a new way to predict “true love;” the study merely shows the connection between emotion, scent, and the mysterious and intricate organ that is the brain.