When they say the phrase “love is in the air,” they probably weren’t referring to Smell Dating. Nevertheless, other mammals put a lot of stock in their olfactory systems when attracting a mate, so it was just a matter of time before humans decided to look into matchmaking based on smell. That’s the basis for a new dating service established by two New York digital artists, Sam Lavigne and Tega Brain.
Smell Dating bills itself as the “first mail order dating service,” which matches people based on scent. Unlike other dating sites, which ask members to answer lengthy questionnaires that are used to find people with the same hobbies and values, Smell Dating just wants members to send them a t-shirt. To sign up, prospective members pay a $25.00. Smell Dating sends them a t-shirt that the person needs to wear for three days without using perfume, deodorant, cologne or other artificial scents.
Sounds smelly? That’s the whole point. Members return the t-shirt in a prepaid envelope, where Smell Dating cuts it into small pieces. The dating site then sends the member small fragments of other people’s t-shirts, which the members then smell and rate which ones they like best. A match is created when both people express mutual admiration for each other’s scent.
Smell Dating is part science experiment, one-part performance art. The website only collects the barest details of its members, asking only for age, gender and address. The member base is exclusive, limited to just 100 people living in New York City. Lavigne calls Smell Dating “an Internet experiment” designed to determine if body odor is a basis for finding a life partner.
Lavigne and Brain call their lab the “Sweat Shop.” Brain teaches at New York’s School for Poetic Computation. Lavigne is an editor and researcher at NYU. The academics base their experiment on the science of pheromones, which are chemical signs that animals send out to draw mates. In some ways the science of human pheromones is in its infancy. “We’ve just started to understand that there is communication below the level of consciousness,” says Bettina Pause, a psychologist at Heinrich Heine University of Düsseldorf (H.H.U.). Pause has been studying pheromones and human social olfaction for 15 years. “My guess is that a lot of our communication is influenced by chemosignals.”
In humans, the strongest evidence for scent-based interactions comes from newborns, who are actually drawn to their mothers’ scents. There is also evidence that androstadienone, which comes from the male hormone testosterone, can induce panic in some women but relaxation in others. Researchers are still investigating whether women’s pheromones have an impact on men.
Researcher suggests that Smell Dating could be on to something. Variation in the major histocompatibility complex (MHC), which is a set of immune system genes, imbues each person with a unique “odorprint,” like a fingerprint. No two people have the same odorprint. A study even revealed that human females preferred the musk of sweaty T-shirts worn by men with suitably different MHC genes.
Smell Dating hopes that some of its members achieve a long-lasting match. Members of the site are excitedly awaiting their first batch of dirty t-shirt swatches, with the hope that one will contain cupid’s arrow.