What Are Pheromones And Their Role in Humans?

The term “pheromone” was defined by the German biochemist Peter Karlson and Swiss entomologist Martin Lüscher in 1959. The word has two Greek roots: “pherein” (transport) and “hormone” (excite). Thus, pheromones were defined as substances secreted by individuals that received by other individuals of the same species, cause a specific reaction, behavior or biological change.

What Are Pheromones?

Pheromones are natural substances which living organisms secrete in order to get a response from other organisms of the same species. Generally speaking, pheromones are not sensed by other species, although to members of their own species, these substances can often be detected over great distances. They’re a form of communication which is used by countless species and while there are many different types of pheromones out there, they fall into eight broad categories.

Pheromone Discovery

The first sex pheromone was discovered in 1959 by Adolf Butenandt (who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1930), after 20 years of work. From 500,000 females of silkworm (Bombyx mori), he received 6.4 mg of purified attractive sex pheromone: the bombykol (which is actually an alcohol). However, Adolf Butenandt was not the only one to question the role of these odors.

For over 50 years, biologists have been interested in the role of odor emissions in animals and discovered that most living organisms produce substances they release into the environment.

Wilson’s article in 1963 entitled “Pheromone “was a trigger for many biologists. Many scientists noticed that the topics they were studying could be reread in light of these new concepts. In 1960, Jeanine Barbier and Michel Pain isolated and identified the queen substance of bees, which inhibits the development of the ovaries of the workers. This was the first pheromone amending known to date.

Pheromones in Nature

Since then, progress in the field has been enormous. Numerous pheromones are now known in insects even though the early work of isolation and purification was slow at times. Few pheromones identified in aquatic organisms, however, were reported in brown algae in mold lakes and rivers.

Some pheromones were discovered in fungi, one of them producing a sex pheromone: the female gamete secretes a substance that attracts the male gametes. This was the first isolated pheromone from a plant.

In vertebrates, the term pheromone is more elusive and there are many examples. Pheromones have also been identified in rodents, carnivores, and monkeys. In these mammals, pheromones are generally secreted by glands near the sexual organs or the head.

Do Humans Use Pheromones Like Other Animals?

Unlike the many animals and insects who react to pheromonal messages reflexively, we usually don’t find ourselves unexplainably in the throes of passion at the instant we meet someone with irresistible pheromones. Still, there are times when another person’s chemistry threatens to overwhelm our logic. This is what it means to be “blind with ecstasy.” The thinking brain stops “seeing” and the love-hungry hypothalamus takes over.

Why Chemistry Matters

New research into why we are attracted to some people and not others points to the phenomenon of chemistry. We say, Greg and I had instant chermistry—there were fireworks from the beginning or, When I met Marsha, I wanted to be with her every chance I could get. She was like a drug. We may also recall find- ing someone physically pleasing to the eye and socially desirable (secure job, nice home, well dressed, financially stable) but noticeably be lacking in the attraction department thus, the fireworks are absent and the flame languishes, unstoked.

This may seem confusing. If someone possesses the characteristics society deems worthy, wouldn’t those attributes suffice in our courting and mating rituals? The answer is no. We would be more accurate, and infinitely more human, to describe our partners this way: “Our chemistry was on target.”

Sexual Excitement and Interest

In the 1970s, sex experts Masters and Johnson told us that sex followed a predictable pattern of four stages: excitement, plateau, orgasm, and resolution. The news of the four-cycle sex tango became material for lively dinner conversation everywhere, but something was missing from the picture: What causes or at least facilitates sexual excitement and interest?

Another sex expert, Helen Singer Kaplan, M.D., Ph.D., seemed to provide that answer when she announced that sex incorporated a fifth element: the spark, or, more accurately, sexual chemistry. Without this basic initial stage of connection, one might find it difficult to progress through the subsequent four levels. In her 1974 book The New Sex Therapy, Kaplan did.

Pheromones For Sexual Attraction

The McClintock Study

In the McClintock study, it was noted that when men produce androstadienone in the form of secretions, they are releasing something that can draw in the attraction of women. In a similar vein, women can produce a secretion known as estratetraenol which can act as an attractant to men. The ability to harness these secretions in a product form may very well deliver a means of attracting the opposite sex through better science. However, McClintock was quick to point out there are other factors that tie into the attraction.

Different types of pheromones

There are many kinds of pheromones and they can be divided into two major categories: incentive pheromones that affect the behavior of animals and modifying pheromones that act on the biology of animals.


Aggregation pheromones are intended to call other members of the same species together for a specific purpose. This includes mate selection, defense against predators, and overcoming host resistance by attack. Often, this is to call together as many members of the species as possible to ensure a wider selection of mates. However, this is not the only use of aggregation pheromones, as they are also used to gather together individuals to help fight off an outside threat.


This is a type of pheromone which occurs not only in insects and other animals but also in plants. These chemicals can set “fight or flight” responses in motion in other nearby animals or plants of the same species. In plants, this response often consists of producing chemicals which make them less tempting to animals seeking to graze on them.


Releaser pheromones are intended to produce a behavioral change in the receiver. For example, mother animals release secretions which prompt their offspring to nurse. Also in this category are territory pheromones, which are also designed to prompt specific behaviors, but are released over a longer period of time, since they are not meant to induce a short-term, immediate response.


These pheromones are typically very potent and are intended to produce a short-term response. In some cases, they serve as placeholder signals, getting the recipient’s attention until another, less potent or slower-spreading pheromone reaches them.


We’ve all seen cats marking their territory by rubbing their natural oils on objects or dogs marking their territory with urine, and there are many animals who use these methods to mark territory. There are also animals who have glands which are designed just to produce territorial pheromones.

For instance, many insects produce a territory marking pheromone which they use when laying eggs on leaves – the message being that other insects should look elsewhere to lay theirs.


This is something which is mostly observed in insects (ants, for example). These secretions allow them to mark their trail to a particular object then back home again without running the risk of the group all becoming lost en route to food or other resources to bring back to the colony.


While most pheromones are not detectable by members of other species, there is one very notable exception: urine. While urine itself is not a pheromone, it often contains pheromones which can be detected and used for information by other members of the same species as well as other species.

Cats, for example, can easily distinguish whether urine came from another cat, a dog or a different animal. Within species, however, urine offers far more detailed information.

A dog finding another dog’s urine will be able to tell how long ago the other dog had been there, its sex and other details which would escape other species.


Sex pheromones are among the most potent and allow opposite sex members of the same species know that an individual is fertile and ready to mate. These are the signals which tend to spread over the largest areas and have the most effective in attracting other individuals of the same species.

Plants also release these pheromones, although in their case, the intent is to attract insects who will then help spread the plant’s pollen and allow for reproduction of the plant species.

Sex pheromones indicate the availability of females to be fertilized. Depending on the type of reproductive cycle of the insect, pheromones play different roles. However, the coupling always takes place at a well-defined life cycle of the insect, and even at a specific time of day sometimes. Sex pheromones are by definition created to ease communication with each other in order to ensure the sustainability of the species.

The Pheromone Connection in Humans

One study looked at how the chemical composition of urine might indicate who is heterosexual and who is homosexual to understand the role pheromones played. Researchers collected urine from male volunteers and tested the samples for levels of androsterone and etiocholanolone, both of which may have pheromonal properties. The findings were surprising: The urine of the male volunteers who divulged later that they were homosexual contained higher concentrations of etiocholanolone and lower concentrations of androsterone than did the urine of the heterosexual males.

In the heterosexual men, just the opposite occurred: There was more androsterone than etiocholanolone present in their urine. Subsequent studies have supported these results. Androsterone and etiocholanolone are byproducts of testosterone and another androgen breakdown by the liver.

A scientific consultant for Human Pheromone Sciences, a company that manufactures Realm-perfumes containing synthesized human pheromones discovered noted the women’s fragrance contains more male pheromones than female pheromones, and the male version contains more female pheromones than male. The formulations are designed to give the wearer a dose of the pheromones of the opposite sex. On several occasions, homosexual men told Moran they preferred the women’s version of the perfume over the male version.

While the fact that some homosexual men express a preference for a perfume containing a high percentage of male pheromone is anecdotal, it points to the possibility that homosexuality may be linked to pheromone production and perception.

Moran notes that a male preference for a male pheromone could involve differences in the VNO, the hypothalamus, and their interconnections. Perhaps future studies into the link between sexual orientation and the sixth sense will give us answers.

The Future Of Pheromones

It can be said there will always be a level of controversy present regarding how much pheromones will contribute to the attraction. This is why there will never be an end to the number of studies being performed. This can be considered a good thing because the more studies that are undertaken then the more likely we will someday come to definitive conclusions about how pheromones effective the science of attraction.

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