LOS ANGELES — Sniff your way to love? Singles who have attended so-called pheromone parties haven't ruled it out.
The get-togethers — which have been held in New York and Los Angeles and are planned for other cities — ask guests to submit a slept-in T-shirt that will be smelled by other participants.
Then, voila! You can pick your partner based on scent, or so the theory goes.
The parties started out as an experimental matchmaking fest by a California woman weary of online dating, but it turns out they also have a root in science. Researchers have shown that humans can use scent to sort out genetic combinations that could lead to weaker offspring.
At a dimly lit art gallery in Los Angeles recently, partygoers huddled around several tables covered with plastic freezer bags stuffed with shirts and an index card bearing a number. Once they found one they liked, a photographer snapped a picture of them holding the bag and projected it onto a wall so the shirt's rightful owner could step forward and meet his or her odor's admirer.
Konstantin Bakhurin, a 25-year-old neuroscience graduate student, said he bypassed the bags that smelled like baby powder or laundry detergent or perfume in search of something more unique: the owner of a distinctive yellow T-shirt whose fragrance he described as "spicy."
"I think it's probably a bit more pseudoscience," said Bakhurin, who attended with two fellow graduate students from the University of California at Los Angeles. "I just kind of came here for kicks to see what would happen."
The parties are a marked contrast to the proliferation of online dating sites, which demand countless details from singles.
Judith Prays, a Web developer who now lives in Atlanta, said she came up with the idea for pheromone parties after she failed to find a match online. Then she started seeing a man who wasn't what she was looking for and wound up in a two-year relationship. What she remembered was his smell.
"Even when he smelled objectively bad, I thought he smelled really good," the 25-year-old said. "And so I thought, okay, maybe I should be dating based on smell?"
At first, it was an experiment. Prays invited 40 friends to a party in New York and asked them to sleep in a T-shirt for three nights, put it in a plastic bag and freeze it, then bring it to the party. Bags were coded with blue cards for men and pink for women and numbered so the shirts' owners could pinpoint their admirers.
The night was a hit, Prays said, adding that half a dozen couples hooked up and one pair formed a relationship. She has held similar parties in New York and Los Angeles and is planning others.
Many partygoers chuckled at the idea of finding a match in a smelly T-shirt. But some science supports the idea.
Research studies using similar T-shirt experiments have shown that people prefer different human scents. But whose smell they prefer is dictated by a set of genes that influence our immune response — which researchers say is nature's way of preventing inbreeding and preserving genetic adaptations developed over time.
"Humans can pick up this incredibly small chemical difference with their noses," said Martha McClintock, founder of the Institute for Mind and Biology at the University of Chicago. "It is like an initial screen."
In one study, McClintock and her colleagues had participants sniff inside a covered box without knowing that in some cases they were smelling worn T-shirts. They found people preferred the odors of those who had different genetic makeups from their own, but not radically different.