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The Nose and Our Evolutionary Impulse: Sex

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While Covid has been a worldwide disruptor, it has also slowed things down in a big way, which is a blessing. All of the scent cards have been thrown in the air and have fallen, scattered everywhere - so we are living in an exciting moment of destruction and regeneration when it comes to the usual smell systems. We can look more carefully at the research that is and is not being done, we can draw connections between things we overlooked previously, and we can listen and observe more.

During this time we are also covering up our noses, and we are not touching one another. We are shifting our fundamental communications and rewriting the rules of intimacy. We, humans, emit smells when we are scared, when we are in love, when we are sick or when we are pregnant, among many other things. So what are the long term effects of not being able to smell one another in these states?

In keeping with the short-form blog post, I’ll provide an amuse-bouche of research worth considering. In general, and oddly, research for sexual and olfactory dysfunction is low so until deeper pockets support innovative research on this front, we may have to postulate from what we can learn thus far. A deeper understanding of the connection between the nose and our fundamental evolutionary body parts and impulses is major - and should not be researched only with a lens on creating a pretend pheromone to attract a mate. Let’s try to figure out how the existing pheromones actually link with other natural phenomena.

Over a century ago in 1883 an otolaryngologist Wilhelm Fleiss connected nasal reflexes to symptoms related to the genitalia. In 1901 Fleiss identified genital areas in the nose that he thought activated neurological pathways.

(Photograph of the Austrian psychologist Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) and the German biologist and physician Wilhelm Fliess (1858–1928).)

Meanwhile, as Freud was busy pairing his patient's dreams of trains and luggage to penises and vaginas respectively, Fleiss was Freud’s personal physician. The two collaborated on theories of inherent bisexuality and this new nasogenital relationship pairing erectile tissue with the nose.

Sadly, after Freud diagnosed his patient Emma Eckstein with nasal reflex neurosis Fliess botched a surgery that left her anosmic and deformed. The theory diminished in the 20th century as medical knowledge shifted focus and “advanced”.

Recently though there have been some interesting research articles on scent and sex. Most interestingly is a connection found between the dulling of the olfactory sense that occur when women take oral contraception. This diminishment in olfactory capabilities leads to a lowering of libido, and an inability to properly grasp a partner’s pheromones: something critical in making a partner bond for females. The covering up of natural scent using perfumes or colognes is also noted as a way to short circuit the natural connection people may feel.

In 2016 The Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine published a research paper on the under-reported phenomena of sneezing-induced sexual ideation. Some allergists have also done research on the connection between breathing, sneezing, and sex.

In sum, our nose is most definitely connected to our very active amygdala - the tiny almond-shaped powerhouse in our brain that gets its quickest hits from our nose. This essential part of our limbic system regulates our emotions and how we perceive them in others. The nose and the amygdala have been a great pair over millennia to keep us safe and help us communicate with each other. So take good care of your nose today, and pay attention now more than ever with your nose to the natural phenomena around you. And don’t forget that our skin even has olfactory receptors: our skin can “smell” and continually send messages to our amygdala. Wow!

Research cited:

Bhutta M. F. (2007). Sex and the nose: human pheromonal responses. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 100(6), 268–274.

Chester A. C. (2007). The nose and sex: the nasogenital reflex revisited. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 100(11), 489–490.

Kollndorfer, K., Ohrenberger, I., & Schöpf, V. (2016). Contraceptive Use Affects Overall Olfactory Performance: Investigation of Estradiol Dosage and Duration of Intake. PloS one, 11(12), e0167520.

Lian Gelis, Nikolina Jovancevic, Sophie Veitinger, Bhubaneswar Mandal, Hans-Dieter Arndt, Eva M. Neuhaus, Hanns Hatt. Functional Characterization of the Odorant Receptor 51E2 in Human Melanocytes. Journal of Biological Chemistry, 2016; jbc.M116.

Nose terms used:

Anosmic: Disorder where a person can no longer smell

Otolaryngologists: a fancy word for ear, nose, and throat doctor

Nasogenital relationship: a connection not fully accepted in modern science of the connection between the nose and genitals

Nasal reflex neurosis: a psychological term coined by Freud as a diagnosis where issues in the nose were related to sexual dysfunction and vice versa.

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