My ex-girlfriend smelled like magic and rainbows and really fancy organic laundry detergent. When we were dating, I was kind of obsessed with her smell. Once, she left a T-shirt tangled in my sheets after a sleepover. Instead of fishing it out and returning it to her, I left it there. That night, I slept better and longer than I had in ages. I thought it was just the magic of queer romance, but it turns out there’s science behind why people sleep better with a lover’s shirt.
“There is a lot of research that shows the health benefits stemming from the physical presence of our romantic partners, ranging from stress regulation to sleep quality,” says Frances Chen, professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, who co-authored a 2019 study investigating whether sleeping with a olfactory reminder of their bae’s shirt can improve their sleep, even if said bae wasn’t present.
It does, it turns out. So, all the folks wondering whether it’s creepy to smell their partner’s clothes can chill out and accept that sometimes, science is creepy. For the study, Chen and her co-author, researcher Marlise Hofer, gave participants either their romantic partner’s actual shirt to use as a pillowcase or a placebo look-alike shirt. People who slept with their boo’s shirt not only reported that they slept better, but they also slept about nine minutes longer than those with the placebo.
I could really use that extra hour of sleep a week, so I can’t help but be a little jealous of all the partnered people out there. But Chen says that single folks may be able to recreate the effect. “Although our attachments to our romantic partners can be very strong, I would expect that the scent of any loved one — a family member, close friend, or even a pet — could also be comforting,” she tells me. This may explain why I let my pitbull spoon me even though she snores like crazy. Chen postulates that the comfort of scent isn’t necessarily about mating or romance. “I think it’s about love and attachment,” Chen says. “We are currently starting a new study to see if a mother’s scent can help her infant sleep better.”
Chen says scientists aren’t sure yet why the scent of a loved one is so soothing. “It could be that the familiar scent of a loved one is a cue that they were recently in the area,” she says. “That they were or are nearby might make us feel safe and secure.” The sense of smell is considered one of our most primal senses, meaning it was one of the first that humans developed. Humans use scent now — as in our more apeish days — as a way to determine whether we are safe or not. Our bodies process scent in the oldest part of the brain, the limbic system, and some research suggests that odor is still a way that we determine friend from foe. We know more about the ways that humans use smell to detect danger than comfort, in part, because for most of our history it was really important to steer clear of predators. Now that our lives are relatively safer, scientists like Chen and Hofer can start trying to understand how scent can make us feel comfort.
The sedative effect of a lover’s scent is only shown to work if the relationship is good though, Chen says. “We don’t have data on couples who are fighting or partners who have broken up, but I imagine that the effects could look very different in those cases,” she explains.
Sounds about right. When rainbow bae and I broke up, every time I caught a whiff of something that smelled like her, instead of feeling relaxed or comforted, I felt sad — which makes sense. Chen says they are planning to do more research on the relationship between relationship satisfaction and how partners’ perceive each other’s scents. Until then, get you a cuddle buddy that smells good and keep it chill long enough to steal their shirt.
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