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No. 90: Nov-Dec 1993

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A Tale Of Two Noses

The vomeronasal and olfactory  sensory systems
The vomeronasal and olfactory sensory systems. (L. Stansass, M. Reingold)
First: An Anecdote. Some 30 years ago, D. Berliner, at the University of Utah, was studying human skin. To acquire raw material, he scraped skin cells from the insides of casts discarded by skiiers who had had broken bones. From this debris, Berliner extracted numerous chemical compounds. As far as anyone could tell, these substances were odorless, so he stored them in open flasks. However, Berliner noticed that when people were working in the lab with the flasks, they were more friendly and relaxed than normal. He could not divine the reason until some months later when he decided to cover the flasks of skin-derived substances. Curiously, the lab workers soon reverted to their usual grumpy selves! What could account for this strange behavior change? Knowing that animals often communicated with one another employing chemicals called pheromones, Berliner suspected that the flasks had been releasing odorless human pheromones. Sure enough, analysis of the skin-derived materials proved him correct.

Next: A Look Up the Nose. Biologists have long realized that animal noses actually contain two sensory channels. The first is the familiar olfactory system, which humans also possess. The second channel is the vomeronasal system. In animals, each system has its own separate organs, nerves, and bumps in the brain. The function of the vomeronasal system is pheromone detection. It was widely believed that humans had long ago discarded this sensory system along evolution's trail. But a closer look at the human nose by B. Jafek and D. Moran, affiliated with the Rocky Mountain Taste and Smell Center at the University of Colorado, revealed that all humans examined displayed two tiny pits on both sides of the septum, just inside the the opening of the nose. Behind the holes were tubes lined with unique cells that could well be pheromone detectors, since they responded positively to puffs of air laden with pheromones.

In conclusion, we humans actually do have a sixth sense, and we are all enveloped in an aura -- not the luminous aura of the mystics but a cloud of pheromones. Somehow, our attitudes towards others are likely affected by these pheromones. (Blakeslee, Sandra; "Human Nose May Hold an Additional Organ for a Real Sixth Sense," New York Times, September 7, 1993. Cr. P. Gunkel)

From Science Frontiers #90, NOV-DEC 1993. � 1993-2000 William R. Corliss