Neanderthals, Dogs, and the Love Hormone

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April 19, 2021 by libroshombre

            Philosopher Immanuel Kant liked to remind us that, “All our knowledge begins with the senses, proceeds then to the understanding, and ends with reason. There is nothing higher than reason.”  Astronomer Edwin Hubble agreed, saying “Equipped with his five senses, man explores the universe around him and calls the adventure Science,” and scientists are constantly discovering new aspects of how we relate to the world through our perceptions.  For example, “Neanderthals Listened to the World Much Like Us,” a NYTimes.com article by Sabrina Imbler, describes the findings of French scientists who are trying to determine if Neanderthals spoke “have reconstructed the outer and middle ear of Neanderthals and concluded that they listened to the world much like we do,” and “had the anatomical ability to perceive a similar range of sounds as modern Homo sapiens, including upper speech frequencies that mainly involve consonant production … The use of consonants distinguishes human language from mammalian communication, which is almost completely vowels,” the article continued.  By recreating 3-d models of other ancient ears, the researchers showed that “Neanderthals’ sweet spot was the same as modern human beings,” whereas other early hominids’ hearing ranges differed.

            In recent years several breakthroughs in our understanding of the sense of smell have emerged.  A study from the University of Michigan looked into how the oils produced by birds’ glands to groom their feathers also contain compounds produced by bacteria in the birds’ biomes  that help identify their readiness to mate, their potential dangerousness, and other crucial messages.  Also described in “The Bacterial Surprise in This Bird’s Smell,” another NYTimes article, is how “birds tend to have the same bacteria and odors in common with the individuals they spend time with,” which implies that the microbes transfer from one to another.  Moreover, “a study of roller derby participants found that after a match, skaters’ skin microbiomes were more similar than they had been before.”

            The use of scents in movie history has yet to prove as successful.  In 1960 Smell-O-Vision accompanied the release of the film “Scent of Mystery.” The movie theater’s seats were rigged to emit 30 odors triggered by the soundtrack during the course of the film.  “Variety” reported that the aromas were released with a loud hissing noise, the odors reached some audience members so faintly that they all sniffed loudly, and those in the balcony received the smells seconds after the appropriate on-screen action.  The problems were mostly fixed after the first showing, but the movie itself was an irredeemable dud, and a 2000 Time Magazine survey included Smell-O-Vision in the “Top 100 Worst Ideas of All Time.”

            That was enough to inspire John Waters, the eccentric filmmaker who made a number of norm-bending cult movies, as well as the musical “Hairspray,” a huge hit on film and Broadway.  Waters delights in shocking people, and he achieved that with “Polyester” a 1981 comedy satirizing life in the early 1980s.  I was fortunate enough to attend when “Polyester” opened and learned that Waters utilized “Odorama” scratch-and-sniff cards distributed to audience members that had ten smells: roses, flatulence, model airplane glue, pizza, gasoline, skunk, natural gas, new car smell, dirty shoes, and air freshener, all to be scratched at inappropriate moments.  For example, when the movie wife entered a room carrying roses, a scratch and sniff number flashed on the screen, but immediately the husband took off his shoes, and it wasn’t roses we smelled.  Compared to most of Water’s other films, “Polyester” was well received by critics and is highly rated on the Rotten Tomatoes review site.

Waters is a true bibliophile, owning over 8,000 books,and and he insists his fan mail being delivered to a favorite hangout, Atomic Books, an independent bookstore in Baltimore.  A visitor to Water’s house wrote, “Bookshelves line the walls but they are not enough. The coffee table, desk and side tables are heaped with books, as is the replica electric chair in the hall. They range from Taschen art tomes such as The Big Butt Book to Jean Genet paperbacks and a Hungarian translation of Tennessee Williams with a pulp fiction cover. It feels like an eccentric professor’s study, or a carefully curated exhibition based on the life of a fictional character.”

When it comes to smelling, however, it’s hard to beat dogs; humans possess a measly 6 million olfactory receptors and sniff infrequently and indifferently compared to canines, who, according to Smithsonian Magazine’s “Evolution of a Friendship,” have 300 million receptors, sniff five-ten times per second, “and map their whole world that way.”  Canine noses sense identity, quantity, and time, and by checking our garbage heaps 23,000 years ago, some wolves morphed into dogs.  During the last great ice age small pockets of people, herbivores, and carnivores wound up scrambling to survive in “refugia,” areas “in which a population of organisms can survive through a period of unfavorable conditions, especially glaciation,” with food enough for the herbivores that fed the human and non-human carnivores.

Both humans and wolves were scavengers, and when some wolves proved less aggressive they learned that humans provided a more regular source of food.  And by providing early warning systems, light transportation, and other services, human found these nice wolves worth keeping around.  It’s described in more detail in the Smithsonian article.  “Over thousands of years, evolution selected and sharpened in dogs the traits most likely to succeed in harmony with humans.  Wild canids that were affable, nonaggressive, and less threatening were able to draw nearer to human communities … Those dogs were ever so slightly more successful at survival and reproduction … They survived better with us than without us … Eventually it became a reciprocity of not only efficiency, but of cooperation, even affection.  Given enough time, and the right species, evolution selects for what we might call goodness.” 

After a few millennia, an oxytocin loop emerged.   “Oxytocin is a hormone produced in the hypothalamus and released by the pituitary gland.  It plays an important role in human bonding and social interaction and makes us feel good about everything from empathy to orgasm.  It is sometimes referred to as ‘the love hormone.’”  When human babies look in your eyes, your oxytocin levels automatically soar, and the babies’ oxytocin likewise spikes, thereby eliciting caregiving instincts, which oxytocin enhances.  Similarly, oxytocin loops, occur when you and your dog stare into each others’ eyes.  Even when they’ve been fed and exercised that dog will stare adoringly.  “It’s just kind of like they’re trying to hug you with their eyes.

            Oxytocin is known as the love hormone for good, scientifically validated reasons.  Scientists have also proven that dogs prefer positioning themselves on a north-south gravitational alignment to poop.  PBS News Hour reported that to discover this truth, 70 dogs from 37 breeds were tested over two years (that’s 1,893 defecations and 5,582 urinations, for those scoring at home), but they still don’t know why dogs do it.  We do know for sure that people and dogs can inspire those oxytocin loops, and when it comes to dogs, it’s like Lao Tzu wrote several millennia ago, “Love is of all passions the strongest, for it attracts simultaneously the head, the heart, and the senses.”

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