Pheromones: What are they?

By: Charlotte Miller

If you have never heard of pheromones, do not worry, you are not alone. I was recently made aware of what pheromones are, and I have been intrigued by the concept of them ever since. So what are pheromones exactly? Pheromones are chemicals that compel behavior after binding with chemoreceptors (Verhaeghe et al., 2013). They are social and sexual chemosignals (chemical signals) given off by animals that have shocking effects on behavior (Verhaeghe et al., 2013). Yes, pheromones can literally impact behavior. 

How does this work? There are four simple steps to explain the action, and reaction, pheromones induce. Both humans and other animals secrete fluids through glands that are processed by the olfactory system of other individuals. The olfactory system is how the body processes smell. Processing the scents of pheromones in other individuals is subconscious, so it can be difficult to study (Wyatt, 2017). It is unclear whether or not the olfactory system in humans can induce sexual behaviors or feelings like other senses such as touch and vision. 

There are four categories of pheromones. 

  1. Releaser: illicits an immediate behavioral addiction  
  2. Signalor: provides information about the individual 
  3. Modulator: affects mood and emotion 
  4. Primer: affects endocrine and neuroendocrine system over time

Have you ever lived with a bunch of other women and all of your menstrual cycles sync up? That is a result of primer pheromones! Although there is a lack of substantial scientific research to support this idea of  ‘syncing’, from personal experience, I definitely believe in it! 

How accurate is this information for humans? 

Animals and other non-human mammals have the vomeronasal organ (VNO) in their nasal cavity which detects pheromones and sends them to the brain to be processed (Verhaeghe et al., 2013). Although the olfactory system can also process pheromones, humans do not have a VNO after infancy. This makes it difficult for researchers to distinguish the extent to which pheromones can impact human emotions and behavior. An example of pheromones in action in animals is when a queen bee releases a specific queen-born pheromone. These pheromones allow for their dominance over the worker bees and inhibits worker bees from reproducing in the presence of queen-borne pheromones (Wyatt, 2017). There is substantial evidence for the impact of pheromones on sexual behavior, mating, and dominance in animals, specifically insects.

Sweat is a key component in distinguishing the effects pheromones have on human behavior, specifically in regards to mate selection. Sweat is made up of simple organic acids and contains the smell-components 16-androstenes (Verhaeghe et al., 2013). Androstenes are steroids that are present in sweat and can be detected by the olfactory system. In theory, androstenes target the opposite sex partners, but the research surrounding this is still lacking considerable evidence for humans compared to other animals where it is much more evident. 

In conclusion, the study results detailing the effects that pheromones have primarily supported their effect in insects and non-human mammals. Since animals have a VNO and humans do not, it is difficult to conclude whether pheromones can be detected by humans through solely their sense of smell, hence the lack of evidence for humans Pheromones are present in sweat in all animals, and humans may potentially be capable of subconsciously picking up on these smells. Whether or not they impact human behavior and sexual attraction is not entirely known. This is  an interesting concept that future studies will hopefully be able to dive deeper into for humans! 

Reference List: 

Verhaeghe, J., Gheysen, R., & Enzlin, P. (2013). Pheromones and their effect on women’s mood and sexuality. Facts, views & vision in ObGyn, 5(3), 189–195. 

Wyatt, T. (2017). Pheromones. Current Biology, 27(15), R739–R743. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2017.06.039

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