By Teresa N. Castaneda de F.
There's this guy, giving you that predator look from the distance. You don’t even know his name, but when you pass next to him, you feel something you never did before. Could it be love at first sight?
According to the US Census Bureau, Miami-Dade County population by July 1, 2019 was 2,716,940. On the same year, the population under 18 years old was 20.2%, which leads to 548,821.88 young, impulsive people, open to new experiences and adventures, most of them predisposed to the idea that sex is equivalent to love as promoted by an omnipresent media and fast forward pressure by society. County Health Rankings indicate that teen birth overall rate in Miami Dade in 2019, was around 17,000 female population, ages 15-19. Could scientific information about how and why our body works, decrease these numbers? Is it possible that knowing why they feel so attracted to some people around them, make them choose a smart backup plan over their natural instincts?
I remember myself, dancing my sweet fifteen-dance with a close family friend we used to call Panchito, almost an uncle to me. It was kind of awkward at the beginning. He was profusely sweating when he pushed me gently toward him by the waist, firmly holding my hand. Then, something happened. His densely concentrated smell, casted a spell on me. My heart beat fast and I turned my face to look into his eyes with a silly smile. For some seconds, I felt like it was only the two of us, dancing on the clouds. I honestly thought I fell in love with a man fifteen years older than me, who carried me on his arms when I was born!
Of course, eventually I overcame my confusion and was eventually able to close my mouth every time he entered the door when he visited. Some years after that happened, I grew really curious about the natural world and eventually became a Biologist. I learned that humans secrete and release chemical substances that play an important role in the survival of our species and the relationships with people around us. In fact, many other animals secrete these chemicals too. The name of such chemical substances is pheromones, a word that comes from the Greek pherein, meaning “to carry” and from the Greek hormone, meaning “to stimulate.” Together, they could be interpreted as “a stimulus force carried by.”
Here’s how it works. The nervous system sends electrical messages to control and coordinate the body. The endocrine system has a similar job, but uses chemical substances to communicate. These chemicals are known as hormones, and they are messenger molecules with specific destinations, that are produced and secreted by specialized organs called endocrine glands. These glands have no ducts, like the stomach or the heart have, which means their secretions are released directly into the liquids inside the organism (in the blood mostly) and travel in the body to target organs, where they do their job.
Pheromones are a special kind of hormones that are used outside the body. In order to get there, right after special glands located mainly in the skin secrete them, they are released through hair follicles along with sweat.
As soon as pheromones are out and about in the air, they affect the behavior and physiology (the function of the bodily parts) of other members of the same specie, and animals and even some plants use these chemical signals to communicate. There are many kinds of pheromones, according to their purpose in natural deeds.
They are widely used by insects to call for aggregation, or to attract a group of bugs of the same specie for either mating or defending themselves from predators. Certain plants secrete alarm pheromones when grazed upon; as a response, they start producing tannin, which is a bitter substance secreted by the plant that makes it less suitable for a meal. Some species of ants secrete a special pheromone they release to leave a trail as soon as they find a suitable feast, so that fellow ants can track it down and, as soon as the feast was devoured by a bunch of ants, the last ones leave a trail of a different pheromone that indicates the meal is all gone!
They are widely used by insects to call for aggregation, or to attract a group of bugs of the same specie for either mating or defending themselves from predators. Certain plants secrete alarm pheromones when grazed upon; as a response, the plant starts producing tannin, which is a bitter substance secreted by the plant that makes it less suitable for a meal. Some species of ants secrete a special pheromone they release to leave a trail as soon as they find a suitable feast, so that fellow ants can track it down and, as soon as the feast was devoured by a bunch of ants, the last ones leave a trail of a different pheromone that indicates the meal is all gone! Isn't that amazing?
Pheromones are also present in dogs and cats' urine, which they deposit on landmarks to delimit the perimeter of their claimed territory. Mammal females not only breastfeed their cubs, but in several species of mammals including humans, both females and their cubs secrete pheromones with mutual connection that attract them to each other in order to guarantee the survival of the cub until it can find food by itself. But mammals use pheromones mostly to attract mates; those are known as sex pheromones.
Basically, sex pheromones indicate that the female is available for breeding. Males also secrete pheromones to indicate agreement and readiness as well. Humans secrete them since they reach puberty. But sex pheromones don’t actually have a characteristic smell. They become active with special odors, yep, the smelly factor! So that bacteria, which are normally found on human skin, digest them. Funny thing is, the more soap, perfume and deodorant people use, the less sexually active pheromones they will carry by!
Sex pheromones are a fine stream of volatile molecules that is detected in most mammals by a pair of tiny tubes located at the base of our nose, called vomeronasal organ that is connected to your brain. Just like all the hormones, pheromone molecules have a special shape and they have binding sites in the target cells of members of the same species. These binding sites can recognize the pheromones because they fit like two pieces in a puzzle. The target cells are called hormone receptors, and they snoop around to tell the brain what’s happening out there!
That’s how your body finds out whether or not a person is chemically compatible to you. At the right time, just a small dose of this natural magic, stinky perfume, can make you feel attracted to someone you don’t even know! But there is a tiny difference between humans and the rest of the animals: We can also communicate in a variety of ways more sophisticated than pheromones. Humans have a complex code of communication, created by them after thousands of years of evolution, intelligence and creativity, which we know now as language.
Language, either spoken, signaled or written, gives us the power to share complex thoughts, to satisfy our curiosity and solve disagreements in a safer, smarter, and more sophisticated way than the rest of the animals, and to learn from our trials and errors, and inherit that knowledge by passing the information to generations ahead. Language also gives us the possibility to get to know people whose pheromones are chemically compatible with ours, in order to find out if they are also compatible in many other intellectual, sportive, emotional and sociable ways with you.
With time, you can really have a more evolved, knowledgeable and successful relationship with that special someone before jumping into the impulsive conclusion that you fell in love at first sight!
Agosta, William C., 1992. Chemical Communication: The Language of pheromones. Copyright by Scientific American Library. Printed in the USA, 1992.