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March 4, 2013 | by  | in Opinion | [ssba]

Mad Science – Scents and Sensibility

It’s the typical Wellington love story…

You meet a boy/girl/trans* individual. Despite 238 mutual Facebook friends, a passionate discussion regarding the deeper subtext of My Little Pony, and a shared love for artists that use the dollar sign instead of the letter S, your romantic future with this person will stink. I don’t want to be nosy about your personal experiences, but Science nose that one of your five senses matters perhaps more than you might think when it comes to love/sex/romance (or lack thereof). It’s not touch, sight, taste or hearing; it’s your sense of smell.

University of Lausanne biologist Claus Wedekind conducted an experiment whereby he gave male subjects new T-shirts and odour- neutral cosmetics, which they wore for two straight nights. Without the stupefying Lynx effect, 49 women got shirty and picked their preferences based solely on the scent of the removed T-shirts. The study found the women preferred the smell of shirts worn by men who were immunologically-dissimilar to them. This difference lay in a sequence of more than 100 genes known as the major histocompatibility complex (or MHC to its friends). Finally, proof that opposites do attract! Men are sensitive to smell too, but apparently not as much as women.

University of Chicago geneticist Carole Ober found that couples with a high degree of MHC similarity suffered higher rates of miscarriages and had a harder time conceiving, with scientists speculating that this may be the body’s way of curtailing investment in children destined to be immunologically weak. Ouch. 

Smell a rat? University of New Mexico psychologist Christine Garver- Apgar found a direct correlation between the number of MHC genes shared and the rate of cheating in couples. Science also has one final, slightly ironic piece of advice – if you want some loving, you’d be better off steering clear of the pill. Wedekind’s study had one key exception: those on the pill flipped in preferences and were more attracted to those who were immunologically similar to them. It was then given the ghastly nickname the “divorce pill” in some sensationalist media outlets.

So there you have it – romantic endeavours are the one situation where commonscents is not a good thing.


Caitlin Craigie


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