On an individual level, human body odors carry information about whether a person is an eligible mate. The current studies investigate if body odors also transmit information about individuals being potential partners in more general terms, namely in regards to gender and sexual orientation. In study 1, 14 gay and 14 heterosexual men were presented with body odors obtained from potential partners (gay male and heterosexual female body odors, respectively) and heterosexual male body odor as a control. In study 2, 14 lesbian and 14 heterosexual women were presented with lesbian female and heterosexual male body odors representing body odors of potential partners, and heterosexual female body odor as a control. Central nervous processing was analyzed using chemosensory event-related potentials and current source density analysis (64-channel EEG recording). Gay and heterosexual men responded with shorter P2 latencies to the body odors of their preferred sexual partners, and lesbian women responded with shorter P2 latencies to body odors of their preferred gender. In response to heterosexual male body odors, lesbian women displayed the most pronounced P3 amplitude, and distinct neuronal activation in medial frontal and parietal neocortical areas. A similar pattern of neuronal activation was observed in gay men when presented with heterosexual male body odor. Both the early processing advantage (P2) for desirable partners’ body odors as well as the enhanced evaluative processing (P3, CSD) of undesirable partners’ body odors suggest that human body odors indeed carry information about individuals being potential partners in terms of gender and sexual orientation.
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