When you think of romance, science probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. Test tubes, petri dishes, statistical analyses—not the stuff that makes most people swoon. Yet when we’re looking at the things that do set our hearts afire, it turns out we need science to help us interpret them. How do perfumers create attraction with their scents? Well, that’s science.
Let’s start with pheromones. You’ve likely heard about them, but in short, they are chemicals given off by one being that causes a response in another—and they’re responsible for love connections everywhere in the animal kingdom. Elephants. Goats. Pigs. Mice. Some male butterflies can smell females when they’re more than 12 miles away. So when you find yourself smelling your partner’s pillow in the morning, is that pheromones? Well, on that point, scientists can’t agree, but there is consensus that we each have our own smell that, for whatever reason, may attract a partner—and the ideal perfume is one that complements it.
What scientists definitely agree upon is the neurological fact that smells, emotions and sexual response are all processed in the same area of the brain. So when you hear that scents like jasmine or vanilla can spark romance, there’s likely some validity to it. Not to mention centuries of anecdotal evidence: Cleopatra was said to use cardamom, cinnamon and basil to seduce her lovers. Napoleon kept violets in a locket until his death, to remind him of Josephine. The Kama Sutra suggested the scent of ginger as a potent aphrodisiac. Take that, Viagra.
There’s even stronger evidence of the impacts of scent on memory, which is also processed in that same area of the brain. Just as the smell of warm cookies can evoke nostalgia for childhood, randomly encountering the fragrance your lover wears can set your heart happily racing. (Unless you’re unlucky enough to pass by someone wearing your ex’s cologne.) Positive or negative, that neurological connection has some powerful emotional mojo.
Finally, let’s not forget the role psychology plays; we all have different ideas of romance, after all. A valentine’s bouquet may not need to be made up of a woman’s florals: just the idea of fresh flowers is enough. Or if the way to a man’s heart is his stomach, the scent of strawberries in vanilla cream might send him into ecstacy. (For that matter, so might the scent of meatloaf, though you’re less likely to find that in the perfume aisle.)
So if you’re planning a night of romance, by all means look your best, but don’t forget to also pass the “smell test.”