The Deeply Powerful Aroma of Human Attraction
Last night I was sitting with my girlfriend and watching Castle Rock, the new-ish show on Hulu that deals with the Stephen King universe characters. We clutched one another amidst the dog and the soft blanket as we stared into the screen, casting our eyes unto the story that was captivating and unfolding before us. As I clutched her a little closer, I noticed something that I’ve always known— that the way a woman’s neck and hair smells drives me wild.
It has to be the right woman, though and there’s a very good reason for it. Scents are tricky like that. Our subconscious minds know what’s up.
In short, I believe that humans know attraction when they see it — but more importantly — we know it when we smell it. There’s nothing quite like the scent of our partner. It rocks our brains in a way that just seeing them cannot.
We can tell, even if on a subconscious level, that the smell we’re experiencing is that of the person we feel a strong, gut-level attraction for and not some random stranger or a friend we’re not attracted to.
When it comes to attraction, it’s not the human smell we adore, it’s our partner’s smell that we need.
No one else will do.
As I closed in on her and her clutching embrace and shut my eyes, I was stopped me in my tracks. “I love the way you smell,” I uttered as I softly caressed her forearm and reached my hand around to clutch her hip. I instantly knew it was her that brought me such warm feelings inside. I knew she was responsible for that sense of security and feeling of being “home.” And I knew it all long before I reflected on who it was and consciously thought about it. I didn’t have to even look at her. My brain did all the effort.
The words effortlessly escaped my mouth.
I was mesmerized, lost in the infinite waves of pleasure and attraction that brewed within my mind, body, and spirit. I was entranced, swimming in a tide of desire, clutching her ever-closer and trying to bask in her unique pheromonic aroma that only she is endowed with.
That’s how attraction works, we know it when we experience it and imposters just won’t do. It’s all-encompassing and powerful.
That’s how you know it’s real. It consumes you from the inside. And you know it so deeply, far down into the fundamental fabric of your being that you don’t even have to expend the effort of reflecting on it.
You intuit it.
the 19th-century philosopher Henri Bergson brilliantly formulated an idea in the late-1800s, that human beings have evolved to rely so heavily on eyesight for survival that we often neglect our other senses. It’s like we can only interpret the world through the map of sight and, since we’re so good at that, we don’t often dare dip our toes in the water of trying something else. The other senses are just complementary components to the sense of sight.
Though he never applied it to human attraction and sexuality, I think it fits.
After all, what is sexuality if we only rely on sight to guide us through it? Doesn’t our sexuality transcend this evolutionary hiccup that’s caused us to rely on sight more than anything else? I think it does and I think purely visual sex is incomplete sex.
I know that when I close my eyes with her and focus on the feelings I’m experiencing in these moments, allowing the experience to just flow through me, paying attention to the sensations that upheave into my mind effortlessly; I escape the isolating prison of the world of cause and effect, the bland and scientific-but-sterile world that is the domain of reason.
It’s like mindfulness when we shut off the external world and just allow ourselves to be. The world of sight is the world where events happen in a causal fashion, every action has a reaction. And this world of sight distracts us from us simply existing and experiencing “pure consciousness,” as Bergson put it.
By using the other senses to tap into our intuition we can transform our interpretation of the world around us (and our partners). We shift from a speculative stance, what we expect to happen next, to the active power of internal experience — without being distracted by the causal relations of the world around us.
We shed the, “What’s going to happen next?” predictions we automatically make about the world and we can finally just experience the moment we inhabit together.
The scent of that soft, hidden spot behind her ear is like a drug that fills my body with hormones, altering my physiology. It’s undeniable from within the moment.
When I close my eyes, I can sense her beauty in a new way. It transcends the imagery stamped upon the outside of her body and allows me to experience something deeper and more meaningful, something much more archaic that screams back to the evolutionary past of our species, long before we wound up bombarded by the world of images. Once upon a time, humans relied much more heavily on their senses of smell and touch to learn things and understand the world around them. This included finding and keeping love.
And now, as only a stroke of ironic fate would have it, that sterile and objective world of science is beginning to be able to measure this experience…
Turns out, it’s likely that people can recognize their partners’ smells among a crowd of others. We can and we can even do so when our partners aren’t present.
A scientific study published in 2018 examined this very premise. The idea is that the scent of those we love and, or those we’re attracted to might trigger memories, feelings, and emotions, and might aid in the process of human attraction and bonding.
The study was small but ingenious. Researchers took women and measured their levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Then they exposed the women to one of three scents randomly and put them under stress to see how their bodies would respond. Some women got their partner’s scent, some got a totally neutral scent for the placebo, and some got their partner’s scent.
Once the results were in, they had some very interesting things to tell us…
In the current study, 96 women were randomly assigned to smell one of three scents (their romantic partner’s, a stranger’s, or a neutral scent) and exposed to an acute stressor. Perceived stress and cortisol were measured continuously throughout the study (5 and 7 times, respectively). Perceived stress was reduced in women who were exposed to their partner’s scent. This reduction was observed during stress anticipation and stress recovery. Cortisol levels were elevated in women who were exposed to a stranger’s scent. This elevation was observed throughout stress anticipation, peak stress, and stress recovery. The current work speaks to the critical role of human olfactory cues in social communication and reveals that social scents can impact both psychological and physiological reactions to stress.
Have you ever clutched your partner’s worn clothing, refusing to let it go? Have you ever slept with a t-shirt of someone you find yourself undeniably attracted to? How did that make you feel? Probably just as wonderful as I felt last night.
The lead author of the study noted, “Many people wear their partner’s shirt or sleep on their partner’s side of the bed when their partner is away, but may not realize why they engage in these behaviors,” and this explains our deep affinity for the smell of those we love, those we care about, and those we’re attracted to on a romantic level.
Today I’ve learned that I’m not crazy. And I’m not alone. And it’s at least possible that we adopted some of our attraction mechanisms from our ancestors, the ones we were before we became fully human, animals that were much more reliant on scent than we are, being mostly sight-based.
So if you haven’t yet, you might want to try one of your partner’s worn t-shirts or a scarf so you can sniff your way into a state of oxytocin-induced calmness.
If Bergson is right (and I think he is), when we love with our other senses, we can uncover an attraction far beyond that which our eyes alone interpret. There, and only there, in those happy realms that we literally cannot see, we can experience the invisible parts of someone else. It’s one of the most intimate experiences possible.
There’s no guarantee it’ll work, but it costs nothing and the rewards are mind-blowing.