I have a cold.
I don’t catch colds often. Having this cold now has reminded me of an old theory of mine about how colds change the way people behave. I’m not a doctor or biologist so this theory has no authority behind it. However, the final piece of my thinking was contributed by a fancy, East Coast type biology professor when I reviewed my theory with him on CompuServe.
Many people have noticed that if we see a cute stranger who has a cold—red nose, sniffling, puffy eyes—we often think, Oh, poor sweat baby, let me help you with that! On the other hand, if someone close to us—a family member or boyfriend or girlfriend—has a cold and they ask for a favor we often react with a shrug, thinking something like, Hey, tough it out, you just have a cold.
Similarly, many people notice that if they have a cold strangers treat them differently than close associates. Strangers will smile and get all solicitous. On the other hand if a person with a cold asks a girlfriend or boyfriend to fix lunch, the girlfriend or boyfriend might say something like, “Hey, the last time you sneezed did you break a leg or something? Fix it yourself.”
I saw this so often that I wondered if there was some physical, biological mechanism at work. It turns there might be. Although I didn’t understand how the mechanism could account for strangers acting differently than close associates, a biologist I talked to immediately pointed out why that would be so.
The mechanism I have in mind is pheromones.
Pheromones are chemicals that organisms emit to modify the behavior of other organisms. All organisms are thought to use pheromones—plants, insects, animals and humans. There hasn’t been a confirmed, peer-reviewed study of human pheromones yet, but many doctors and biologists assume such studies will appear over time. The fact that a cold makes strangers respond differently than close associates is intriguing indirect evidence that pheromones are at work.
A person with a cold would emit pheromones. Pheromones are chemical triggers which interact with nearby people. In nearby people, the pheromones would settle on receptor sites. The action of the pheromone settling on the receptor site would trigger a chemical reaction—the release of hormones, for instance, which affect a person’s thinking and/or mood—and that person may then become solicitous toward the sick person. It’s a survival mechanism which helps sick people work through their illness.
But why would close associates respond differently?
Many chemical reactions in the human body function by this process of chemicals interacting with receptor sites. Receptor sites are molecular structures shaped to respond to only a particular molecule. Sometimes receptor sites are compared to locks and the particular molecules that join on to them are compared to keys. One complication seen often in human metabolism is called receptor site saturation. For any particular reaction there are a finite number of receptor sites. When the molecules they are geared for settle onto them, that triggers further chemical reactions within the body. But after a receptor site has been filled and responded, that particular site will become inactive until the molecular key has fallen away. When all receptor sites for a particular function have been filled, the body will completely stop reacting to whatever molecule is associated with those particular receptor sites.
The most well known example of receptor site saturation is insulin resistance. Insulin is a chemical released within the body which lands on receptor sites which then trigger the processing of nutrients in the blood stream. If a person eats too many carbohydrates, especially sugars, a body can generate so much insulin that all receptor sites will become full and the body will stop processing nutrients in the blood. Nutrients, especially sugars, will then stay in the blood and not transfer into the tissues which need the nutrients to function and all manner of bad things can result.
I believe pheromone interaction with receptor sites is what’s happening when a person catches a cold and interacts with other people.
The sick person is emitting pheromones. Strangers with ready receptor sites react to the pheromones with an internal cascade of various hormones leading to something like, Poor sweet baby, let me help you with that! But close associates have their receptor sites saturated by the pheromones and the pheromone density prohibits the molecules at the receptor sites from dropping away so close associates are unaffected by the pheromones, experience no internal hormonal cascade, and react with, Hey, get real, it’s just a cold, do it yourself.
The next time you catch a cold, or notice somebody around you with a cold, introspect on your feelings. There may be evolutionary rainstorms going on around you and inside you buffeting your thinking.