Published: February 2006
Did You Know?
In Did You Know? the National Geographic magazine team shares extra information we gathered to expand your knowledge of our featured subjects.

Opposites Attract

What does body odor have to do with human attraction and love? Maybe a lot. In one scientific study, researchers Manfred Milinski and Claus Wedekind have found that a group of immune system genes—the major histocompatibility complex (MHC)—influences women's attraction to men's body odors. As author Lauren Slater explains in her article, each woman in the study seemed most attracted to men whose MHC genes were very different from her own.

 

Trying to sniff out other connections, Milinski and Wedekind expanded their experiments and discovered that people who share the same MHC genotype have similar preferences for perfumes. But they also found that those preferences are really about the scents people select for themselves, not the scents they want their partners to have. Finding your own perfect scent—the one that might make you romantically irresistible—at a department store counter or in a magazine insert is probably hopeless, say Milinski and Wedekind. They suggest that "the ideal perfume would be individually composed" by an expert perfumer.

 

But even if they can't bring people together, perfumes can still be used to amplify natural body odors to overcome what these scientists call "the smelly noise of human civilization."

 

Secret Love Letters

"Some physiological aspects of being in love are truly universal," says anthropologist Laura Ahearn of Rutgers University. "But for me, the interesting question is: How is the meaning of romantic love unique in each time and place?"

 

What better place to start looking for the meaning of romance than in intimate love letters? In her book, Invitations to Love, Ahearn finds that love letters illuminate the dramatic transformations in courtship and marriage in a small Nepali village over the past 20 years. She calls the place "Junigau," a pseudonym used to preserve the privacy of the village's 350 inhabitants.

 

Twenty years ago, more than 90 percent of marriages in Junigau were arranged by parents, with groom and bride exchanging only a few words before the wedding. Today, less then 10 percent of marriages are arranged; eloping without parental blessings is the rule. Ahearn shows how all sorts of new influences—from economic development programs to Indian romance movies—have led young people to expect to fall madly in love before marrying. But spending time alone with the opposite sex during courtship is still forbidden. The answer: secret love letters. By writing these passionate, elaborate letters, couples are rejecting arranged marriages, but also trying to define themselves as modern and successful. Says one young man to the woman of his dreams:

 

Yes, Sarita, because of love the world looks bright. Our love I find to be true love. It is indescribable... This union cannot possibly be broken up. Therefore, let's put more effort into studying. This is the path toward progress.

 

Take a look at more love letters on Dr. Ahearn's homepage.

 

—Shelley Sperry