Scent of a (wo-)man?

Having trouble sleeping? Forget taking the Nytol or those irksome Melatonin supplements to help you get a good night’s rest. Seems all you need to do is sniff a dirty t-shirt! Well, not just anyone’s t-shirt, of course…  Psychologists have long known that scent plays an important role in sexual attraction. Particular scents determine who we find attractive and when, for instance, and those of us with a keener sense of smell typically report better quality intercourse.

There is even evidence that the decline in olfactory abilities associated with smoking reduces the number of orgasms a woman experiences. And when it comes to long-term relationships, the scent of one’s partner is sufficient to reduce feelings of anxiety and the physiological responses associated with stress. New research published by Hofer and Chen in Psychological Sciencetakes our understanding of the effects of a partner’s scent a step further by exploring the impact it can have on sleep patterns and quality. In a very well-designed set of experiments, the authors found that simply sleeping with a partner’s worn t-shirt was enough to increase sleep in participants experiencing disruptions to sleep patterns, when compared with control participants sleeping with either a clean t-shirt or, perhaps bizarrely, one worn by an unidentified third-party. The increase in length of sleep was accompanied by a linear increase in melatonin in the brain, suggesting that the scent itself was exerting its effect via a corresponding normal response. Most interestingly, most participants could correctly identify their partner’s scent 70% of the time, though simply telling someone that scent was that of the partner was enough to fool some participants some of the time.

Why does this happen? It’s not a particularly surprising finding when considered in the light of evolutionary theory. The presence of a partner in a pair-bonded relationship reduces stress and anxiety through the sense of security it brings, those emotional responses being triggered by a whole range of hormonal effects. It’s therefore perfectly logical that melatonin production would be one of those hormonal effects. Moreover, significant sex differences were observed among the sample, women experiencing a larger increase in both duration and quality of sleep than men – an effect consistent with the higher sense of security women report a stable relationship brings in comparison to men.

So where does this leave those if us who have trouble sleeping and are prone to spending far too much money on often-ineffective over-the-counter remedies? Well, all we need is a partner willing to let us cuddle up to their dirty t-shirt for the night and this will do far more good than any pill or potion. Oh, and if they happen to be up-to-date with their laundry and don’t have one to hand, many of us will be fooled if they give us someone else’s and just pretend it is theirs!

Mmmmnnnn… best not ask where it came from though, eh?

Categories: Motivation