My friend once told me a story about her toddler daughter who refused to go to a day care without her mom’s two-day-old worn T-shirt. This two-year-old girl used to grab hold of her mommy’s smelly sleeping cloth while playing and napping for the whole day. All attempts to give her washed, nice smelling shirts died in vain – the girl’s nose immediately sensed the truth, and truth made her cry. Little Tess – an extraordinary girl – was not unique in her smell sensing abilities. Science tells us that babies’ brains are affected by their parents smell, bonding the connection between them. However, new research shows us that young moms are not much unlike their newborn children. They are affected by the smell of love as well.
For first-time mothers, the smell of love is the smell of newborn babies. It makes their brain release dopamine – a chemical that is related to reward motivated behavior.
The study showing that love-smell link was conducted in collaboration of researchers from America, Canada, France, Germany, Sweden and published in Frontiers magazine.
Researchers took 15 young women that recently gave birth and compared them to 15 young women with no children while asking both groups to characterize the odorless air and smells of two-day-old babies according to pleasantness, familiarity and intensity. The smell of babies was obtained from the cotton undershirts worn by them for two nights of their newly started life.
Consciously, all women reacted to the smell about the same. When asked to rate it, they marked babies’ smell as weak, unfamiliar and mildly pleasant. But subconscious reaction of their brain was different. Despite the fact that young mothers were not given the smell of their own children, smell of newborns activated dopaminergic neostriatal areas in their brain, as functional MRI showed. And usually this area of brain is activated when people feel pleasure, motivation or have a reward.
“What we have shown for the first time is that the odor of newborns, which is part of these signals, activates the neurological reward circuit in mothers. These circuits may especially be activated when you eat while being very hungry, but also in a craving addict receiving his drug. It is in fact the sating of desire,” said Dr. Johannes Frashnelli, one of the authors of the study, in his statement.
So for young mothers, the smell of newborns is like an extract of happiness bonding their love with their offspring. Even if the study is limited and needs to be continued, it adds to the greater study of the love and smell relationship.
While the link between a newborn’s smell and a mother’s brain is still to be researched, chemical nuances of our love affections or sexual attractiveness are much better investigated. Results of these studies still shock people that are fond of romance.
Science tells us that we choose our partners because of how they smell, and not for some mystical reasons. We don’t judge the price of their perfume bottle, of course, but test their natural sweaty bodies’ aromas. Our sexual attraction toward an opposite sex caused by smell is nothing less than Mother Nature’s wish to produce most healthy offspring. How does it work?
It happens that we are attracted to people whose MHC (major histocompatability complex) doesn’t match ours, and our smell sense surprisingly helps us recognize it. The more men’s and women’s genes are shared, the less likely they will be sexually drawn to each other. They might be good friends feeling like brothers and sisters, but lovers? Never. Mother Nature’s goal is to provide the offspring with the best gene variation possible. And this might happen only when different MHCs enhance each other giving descendents better survival skills.
There is one little trick though. The process is so naturally balanced that any artificial involvement breaks the chain: Birth control, for example, or perfumes. If woman takes birth control pills that convince her body that she is pregnant, her smell sensors are turned the other way – toward a “familiar” smell with the same MHC. That might lead to difficulties conceiving a child or giving a birth to a weakened one. And perfumes we use in our everyday life – deliciously smelling soaps, washing gels, laundry detergents – they all change our natural scent, making the real smell of love unrecognizable.
Thankfully, deep inside, our brain knows the truth. Couples enjoy each other’s bare skin aroma. Babies don’t love mommies to wear perfume or wash their sleeping shirts. They want to smell mommy’s bodies, not flowers. Mothers love to inhale newborn’s odor. And even if this wonderful smell of attraction is originated in chemistry it creates true magic of love giving all sides pleasure, happiness and safety feeling. There should be a reason why we call love chemistry after all.
By Alsu Salakhutdinov