The laws of attraction, especially among humans, are so vague that the word “laws” might need to be changed. For ages, people have tried to pinpoint what draws two people together. Pheromones could answer part of this question. Scientists still have a lot to learn about how these chemicals work, but their history can shed some light on what they might be responsible for in animals and humans.

The concept of a chemical mixture that helps organisms communicate has floated around for a long time. However, two scientists coined the term back in the late 1950’s. Peter Karlson and Martin Luscher identified certain chemicals that aided communication among members of a species. In their case, silk moths produced a substance that showed the characteristics of a chemical used to attract mates. At that point, the search for similar substances in humans began in earnest.

Scientists know that different chemical compounds excreted by a variety of creatures can elicit different responses. For example, some organisms make use of these chemicals to mark territory, to signal a food source to others, to warn others of danger or to strengthen the bond between a mother and her offspring. Of course, the most famous use of these chemicals is to attract members of the opposite sex.

Researchers have also found insects easier to study, since their behavior isn’t as complex as that of mammals and higher primates. However, based on what they have observed in a range of organisms, they suspect that humans would detect chemical signals from other human beings through receptors in their noses. While not exactly a smell, the nose would still be able sense the presence of a particular chemical.

Theoretically, there are four different types of pheromones in the natural kingdom. First, there are releaser chemicals, which trigger sexual attraction among members of the opposite sex (although it has been found that people attracted to others of the same gender react differently to the chemicals related to sexual attraction). Next, primer chemicals act more slowly and have more to do with the development of an individual over the course of his or her life, from childhood through puberty to menopause (in women). Signaler chemicals identify who a person is, especially indicating to a baby that a particular woman is the mother. Finally, modulator chemicals relate to functions in the body and might play a role in synchronizing the biological cycles among members of a group.

Interestingly, researchers have found that these chemicals can also work to calm a person down and switch them into a comforting mood as opposed to a romantic one. Apparently, a chemical in tears actually reduces arousal in men. Just the presence of tears under the nose of male subjects was enough to direct their minds away from more romantic pursuits. The research subjects did not know what the substance was and were compared against a control group. Therefore, men respond not just to the idea of crying but to something in the tears themselves.

Another compelling study showed that gay men and heterosexual men reacted differently to shirts worn by different people. Just based on regular body scent-no perfumes or colognes applied-heterosexual men consistently showed a preference for the smell of shirts that had been worn by women. Conversely, gay men regularly chose shirts used by other gay men, even though neither group knew who had worn the shirts. So, just as some chemical signals turn people off, others please people more.

Experts in this field still have a lot of questions to look into. Without a doubt, the future will yield much more information about this elusive topic. With any luck, researchers will succeed in isolating all the particular pheromones that are responsible for different responses. If humans were as behaviorally similar as insects are, scientists probably would have figured it all out by now. However, that complexity gives humans the richness and excitement that make interactions both a challenge and a blessing.

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