Why does placing my philtrum in the fur of a dog or cat calm me? Why am I drawn to placing said philtrum against the warmth of my daughter’s neck when we hug, or against a lover’s skin while we laze about? What the heck is a philtrum — and what drives it?
It’s a weird word for a uniquely special spot: the valley between the two upper curves of our lip and the bridge of flesh (columella) between our sniffer holes. I say “special” because this small valley, which — in me — craves stimulation, is formed in utero very early on, at only seven weeks. Does this mean it’s somewhat critical to how we function as mammals, I wondered?
Also, it’s special because — I don’t know how you thought the human face formed — we actually start with a crab-like, caterpillar face. Five separate blobs at the head of a curled up, grub-like kind of thing. And I grew one of these inside of me for nine and a half months! How had I not discovered this already? I had tracked her development daily, until she finally saw fit to join us in real time.
So, yeah, five blobs: one on top and two symmetrical sets, below. All of ‘em moving, morphing, growing simultaneously and leading, somehow, to the formation of a philtrum — my happy place.
The top blob moves down; its lower edge is our future nose. The middle set of blobs moves from sides to middle: our future eyes and cheekbones. The lower pair of blobs also moves from sides to middle and, at six weeks, these join to form our lower jaw. In a miraculous seventh week, the nose blob and the two cheekbone blobs all converge at one auspicious spot — the philtrum; our face fully fused, at last.
I’m a sucker for the inexplicable and the ineffable, so it strikes me that this sensitive, pleasure-seeking part of me might not even be its “own thing.” Is a seam a “thing” or a metaphorical “in-between?”
I have only finally dug into this research at 50 because, nose in, I had held and rocked my weeping 11-year-old for almost an hour, recently.
Why, through all of the emotions — the listening, the talking, the fear, the worry and care — did I place this spot against her, over and over? Against her silky, freshly-washed hair with light fragrance from shampoo at yesterday’s slumber party. Against her temple, concave and damp with smeared tears, tiny muscles moving. Against the crook of her neck, a soft, warm nook. Against this child of mine, whom I love and protect most fiercely.
In trying to understand why I face plant the people and animals I love, I did the Google-dive.
Most mammals have a philtrum. In dogs, the philtrum supposedly carries moisture from mouth-breathing, up into the nose. Thrilled over fresh snow, long ago, my dog trainer explained how moisture carries more scent molecules, stimulating my golden retriever into sharper pheasant prowess. When a dog smells, scent molecules lodge in the nose and message the sniffer part of the brain, painting a vivid, multidimensional picture in time.
Pheromones are taken up through an additional system, entering through a small bump on the roof of a dog’s mouth behind the incisors, called the “incisive papilla” by vets. These biological chemicals are released by an organism to incite behavior or emotion, received specifically by the vomeronasal organ and shunted down its own pathways to the brain, separate and distinct from processing aromas — wow!
Three centuries of debate confirm that we humans can have vomeronasal organs; most babies are born with them. But the more recent literature declares it a vestigial remnant, unable to uptake or process pheromone messaging. The daughter and animal nuzzler in me was stumped. What, then, is happening in the mind-meld of nuzzling?
I dropped the science angle and loosened up.
The Latin and Ancient Greek root of “philtrum” is “love charm,” ascribing powers to what they considered one of the most arousing parts of the body. In humans, the shape of the philtrum is treated as a sexual commodity, even, subject to cosmetic surgery and shaping.
Our first experiences with love, security or satiety involve skin and lips — rooting, nursing, nuzzling, kisses. All the warm fuzzy moments can lay down the tracks for our sense of stability in love for the rest of our lives. Skin on skin releases oxytocin, the “love drug” of birth, nursing and sex. This hormone lowers cortisol, influences bonding and increases trust. Just seeing a dog floods the human body. A second dose unfurls when we stroke and caress our dogs.
Whatever it is, whatever is happening, nose to something soft and alive — I will cherish this feeling, because it connects me to those whom I love. And that’s reason enough for me.