The Science of Attraction
Can feeding strangers while blindfolded help people find love?
By Alix Strauss
On a Tuesday night in Manhattan I find myself among 100 strangers, sitting underneath a life-size space shuttle replica, wondering about love. We’ve gathered at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum for a two-hour, speed-dating-style event called The Science of Attraction. Organized by a group called Guerrilla Science, the $20 class promises an evening of interactive sensory experiments based on neuroscience and psychology to help us understand how sight, touch, taste, smell, and movement influence Cupid’s arrow.
The group is an eclectic mix of people, mid-20s through late 30s, some with a bent towards science, some just looking for an outside-the-box activity. Four people are seated at each of the 20 or so tables, half which house single folks like myself; the other half are couples.
I’m skeptical — I’m from New York, after all — but I’m truly interested in learning about this thing called love. And if I find romance, or at least a date, that’s fine too.
Olivia Koski, head of U.S. Operations for Guerrilla Science, tells us the goal is to “help people think about how all of their senses are involved in human attraction and behavior, and how much they rely on their sight when choosing a partner rather than using their other senses.”
The evening is emceed by comedian Chris Duffy, host of “You’re the Expert,” a podcast where comedians interview scientists, and by astronomer Jana Grcevich, who is here — due to the location — to tie together attraction and outer space.
“I’ve hosted this event a few times before, and at one of the after-parties there were people hardcore making out on the dance floor in a way I couldn’t believe,” Duffy tells the crowd. “Your brain is doing something new which can stimulate a connection.”
I’m seated at table №3 with two other women and one man, David, an anesthesiologist who coincidentally, I learn, lives three blocks away from me. If this were to work, at least we’d have proximity, and I find that attractive.
On our round cocktail table, covered by a purple tablecloth, we find fortune cookie-like notes, a battery-operated candle, a travel-size bottle of Purell, and blindfolds.
After introductions and an overview of the evening, our first assignment is to tell the person seated next to us something embarrassing. I choose a time, two decades ago, when I introduced myself to a new group of people, not realizing that my zipper was down, with the end of my shirt sticking out through the gap. Classy. Kristen, the woman on my left, tells me her boss recently scolded her during her presentation by saying a high school student could have done a better job.
This exercise is meant to create closeness and familiarity by revealing something personal, and to see if we are attracted to another person’s voice. Duffy tells us that when women are interested in someone, they tend to raise their pitch; in the same situation, men’s voices go lower. Both genders slow their speech down.
“It takes a moment to guide the spoon into his mouth, then follow with the chocolate. He does the same to me, and I’m surprised by how comfortable I am.”
Ann, a woman in her 20s who is seated across from me, confirms how important the sound of someone’s voice is to her. “I’m very into personality, and voice has a lot to do with it,” she tells me. “I’ve been on dates where I’ve meshed with the guy, but if his voice is too high-pitched or out of sync with what I’m looking for, I become less attracted to him.” Ironically, her voice is a tad monotonous, with a hint of uptalk at the end.
In the next round, small plates are put in front of us, containing broken pieces of dark chocolate and what looks like old granola lumped on a mini plastic spoon. We’re told to switch partners and feed them — while we’re blindfolded. No one seems terribly pleased to do this, including me — blindfolds carry a lot of baggage, and in a room full of strangers, the gift of sight is one of the few positives I have right now.
This time, my partner is David. I ask if I can touch him in order to follow the directions. I move my hand up his arm to his shoulder and find his jaw. It takes a moment to guide the spoon into his mouth, then follow with the chocolate. He does the same to me, and I’m surprised by how comfortable I am. This feels far sexier than the first task, as there’s an innate physical intimacy. David, who is probably in his early 30s, has very soft skin and is well-toned, and I enjoy the human contact.
Dark chocolate is a known aphrodisiac: it contains tryptophan, a building block of serotonin, and phenylethylamine, which is found in amphetamines. Both chemicals are associated with feelings of falling in love. But we are all surprised to learn that the spoon held freeze-dried tomato and carrot pieces, often eaten by astronauts — and that these foods can create a “carotenoid glow.”
“Scientists found that people are attracted to those who have a tan or whose skin has more color,” Grcevich says. “Eating vegetables like carrots, kale, broccoli, and tomatoes increases pigmentation naturally.”
We’re also told that the act of feeding someone has a biological effect, that touch releases oxytocin, serotonin, and dopamine, three euphoria-inducing hormones.
“Attraction is complicated. Sometimes there’s no sense to it,” David tells me, adding that he stumbled upon the event while surfing the web. “Early romantic relationships have made indelible imprints on my brain, so I find I go back to similar women, in a self-reinforcing way.” Attraction is indeed complicated, because even though David is a nice guy, and I’ve just fed him blindfolded, I’m not feeling it.
A gong sounds, two of our tablemates rotate to other groups, and two new participants, Allison and Oren, appear at our table. We’re asked to do 20 jumping jacks, and, blindfolded again, to smell a new person’s wrist, arm, and armpit.
Allison is a physiologist who smells of caramelized peanuts rather than sweat. She came at the suggestion of her friend. When I ask what she thinks attraction is made of, her response is bleak: “If I knew the answer to why we fall in love and what we’re attracted to, I probably wouldn’t be sitting at the singles table.”
Duffy asks what we’ve experienced. Most of the single people admit to finding this exercise uncomfortable, while the couples say they enjoyed it. (Sure they did! They’re smelling the person they’re with!) Duffy adds that people tend to be attracted to those who have biologically different odors, which may help strengthen the immune systems of their offspring.
During the starting exercise, we learn that it only takes 0.2 seconds of visual contact to fall in love — hence the expression “love at first sight.” We’re also told that anything more than a mere 3.3 seconds of staring from a stranger can make people uncomfortable — and make that stranger seem like a stalker. Yet a mutual share-stare for over a minute can biologically make you feel a deep connection to that person. This information reminds me of the Modern Love column that went viral a few years back, which advocated staring into a would-be partner’s eyes for four minutes uninterrupted.
Keeping the outer space component as part of the evening’s theme, Grcevich tells us about the Overview Effect, which happens to astronauts when they look down on the Earth. Most experience a profound shift in consciousness and a deeply emotional sense of connectedness with the planet and with one another.
Our final task is dancing with a stranger. Still blindfolded, I clasp hands with the newest member to join our group, Jennifer. I’m unfazed; love is love, after all. I lift up my mask to see how everyone else is reacting and am pleased to see that gender doesn’t seem to be a factor for anyone. Together Jennifer and I sway, swirl, and rock back and forth to disco. I’m not a fan of this either, but without words — or sight — I find that our movements are perfectly in sync. I instinctively know when she is going to go left to my right, and vice versa, at the same time and tempo. I sneak another peek and see the couples are dancing close to one another; some are kissing, and one man cups his partner’s behind. The singles are far more reserved.
After a brief Q&A session where only a few people ask questions, everyone is invited to an after-party a few blocks away. It’s a nice offering, but as I look around the room, I realize that, for me, attraction is more than looks and smells. It has a cerebral component, paired with a complicated reason for connection that probably stems from things from childhood or genetics. I decide to skip the party.
Before leaving, I thank everyone for allowing me into their evening. As I say goodbye to Koski, I ask her what the goal for tonight was. “Science provides methods to understanding the world better,” she says. “Tonight was about asking questions and learning new methods. Some people come here looking for love, and they might not have found it, but they had an interesting evening and can tell an interesting story to others because of it.”
Fair enough. Though the evening was intriguing — I’m fascinated by human behavior and why we do the things we do — I’m ready to go home. At least I have an interesting story to tell my Uber driver.
Alix Strauss is a writer based in New York. Illustration by Lorenzo Gritti.
Originally published at expmag.com on June 19, 2019.