How pheromones work by James V. Kohl

By: James V. Kohl | Published on: May 1, 2010

The response to pheromones, is a “survival of the species” concept that has been repeatedly detailed in examples of classical conditioning. In more evolved species like mammals, classical conditioning of the response to pheromones involves at least one other sensory stimulus from the social environment (e.g., an environment that includes other members of the same species).
In classical conditioning, one sensory stimulus is repeatedly paired with another sensory stimulus. This repeated pairing allows the second sensory stimulus to cause the same behavioral response that was initially caused by the first. In fact, after the response is conditioned to occur, the second sensory stimulus can then cause the same behavioral response even in the absence of the first stimulus. For example, after visual input is paired with the effect of pheromones on hormones and behavior, what we see can cause us to respond as if the pheromones were causing changes in the hormones that affect our behavior.
Behavioral responses that are due to classical conditioning tend to confuse people about the relative significance of different sensory stimuli with regard to cause and effect. The significant stimulus is the initial sensory stimulus that causes the behavioral response (e.g., the pheromones). Only after conditioning can associated sensory stimuli (e.g., visual stimuli) gain significance. Thus, classical conditioning allows a relatively insignificant secondary sensory stimulus, like visual input, to affect behavior.
The association of visual input with the pheromones is the only way that an insignificant visual stimulus can become significant to the organism. Mammalian pheromones condition a hormone response that occurs with concurrent exposure to relatively insignificant sensory stimuli, like visual input. The hormone response is then linked to behavior associated with either pheromones, visual input, or both.
Humans are the only mammals who can think that something other than mammalian pheromones (e.g., visual input) might affect their behavior more than pheromones do, because other mammals can’t think. An accurate conceptualization of mammalian pheromones includes the fact that only humans can think about them, but all mammals respond to pheromones without thought, whether or not they think they do.
It may help others to grasp this accurate conceptualization of mammalian pheromones if they consider how food preferences are classically conditioned. The odor of the food causes hormone responses that change during the development of preferences that are associated with the food’s visual appeal.

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