Do humans have a Jacobson's organ that allows them to sense who they should couple with?

Christina Drill
August 29, 2014

Can humans smell a good potential mate from across the room?

According to Jennifer L. Verdolin, author of Wild Connection: What Animal Courtship and Mating Tells Us About Human Relationships, the answer is, well, kind of.

Verdolin’s article in Slate explains the importance of the Jacobson’s organ in a strong sense of intuitive smell.

The Jacobson’s organ (or the vomeronasal organ) is a small organ found in many animals at the base of their nasal cavity. Cats, dogs, lemurs, and even some small monkeys have it. It acts as a secondary olfactory organ and is first in line when it comes to processing smell, especially pheromones. The strangest thing is that human embryos have this organ, but it disappears by the time the baby is born. Adults have essentially an empty space in their nasal cavity where the Jacobson’s organ should be, but that’s about it.

As humans, we may not have a visible Jacobson’s organ, but our brain does light up in the right places when we smell pheromones, so some scientists argue that while we don’t have a Jacobson’s organ per se, we have developed the cranial ability to detect pheromones without it. But apparently, something as simple as birth control pills can get in the way of whether or not the pheromones we are attracted to are the ones we should be attracted to.

So pheromones are apparently linked to a person’s genetic health and immune system. These genes are called MHC genes (major-histocompatibility complex), and naturally, we are attracted to MHC genes that are different than ours. (This is why, among other things, nobody is ever attracted to their relative, who has very similar MHC genes.) However, the pill, which alters the hormones your body produces, apparently makes you attracted to people with similar MHC genes as you.

Tricky. Need to read this book now.

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