Can Brain Science Decipher Love?

Any day now, the stores will be awash in red decorations in preparation for Valentine’s Day. The day is more a clever marketing ploy than a holiday, but nevertheless, when faced with images of red hearts everywhere, people may well start to ponder the status of their relationships (or how to find a relationship) and the general notion of love.

What is love? Is it an intense attraction? A diamond necklace? The feeling parents have for their children? We know it when we feel it, but can we explain it? In her book, Dirty Minds: How Our Brains Influence Love, Sex, and Relationships, released earlier this week, science writer and frequent Dana Foundation contributor Kayt Sukel looks into the neuroscience behind our decisions of the heart.

Dirty Minds Cover

This is not a dry science textbook we’re talking about; with sections like “Hot Monkey Loving,” and “Sexy as a Boar’s Saliva,” you’ll be entertained as you learn about the inner workings of the brain. Written in a conversational tone, the language is easy to follow, and some personal anecdotes add humor and colorful imagery.

In the chapter “Neurobiology of Attraction,” Sukel weighs in on the debate surrounding the existence of human pheromones and how smell can contribute to attraction (something discussed in the 2009 Dana briefing paper, “The Chemistry of Love”). Despite what you may see in some perfume advertisements, scientists have yet to identify a single human chemical as a pheromone.

But certain mammals, such as the boar, are equipped with pheromones to attract mates, says Sukel. The male boar produces androstenone in its saliva, which is replicated in the spray, BOARMATE, used by farms to get female boars “in the mood.” In a funny moment in the book, Sukel describes a spur-of-the-moment experiment, in which she sprays her docile cat Boo Boo with BOARMATE to see if it promotes sexual behavior. It does not—after a few wide-eyed sniffs, the cat bolts.

What’s somewhat unbelievable is that some people actually use BOARMATE as a tool to attract the opposite sex. Even more incredible is that they discuss it openly on the Internet (I’m sorry, but if that was my secret weapon, I think I’d keep it to myself).

When all is said and done, smell can factor into human attraction, but don’t buy into gimmicks. Charles Wysocki of the Monell Chemical Senses Center tells Sukel,

We know there is some unconscious processing of human body odor. And there is some evidence to suggest body odor can help us identify individuals we know or perhaps attract us to others. But there is simply no good, reliable, experimental evidence to support the claim that some pheromone spray you buy on the Internet is going to help make you more attractive to others.

Boo Boo agrees.

If you’d like to learn more about Dirty Minds, several reviews of the book are available online and a trailer is posted on YouTube.

-Ann L. Whitman

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