October 19, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

How is eating carrots or being able to taste PTC affecting your love life? This Guerilla Science event explored the science of love and lust.

couple kissing at sunset

The richness of a laugh. The depth of a gaze. Fleeting dimples. A musky essence. What is it that gives someone that je ne sais quoi that quickens our pulse, jumbles our thoughts and ultimately makes us melt?

While we’ve embraced digital platforms to lead us to find compatible partners, it’s impossible to ignore the physical cues of attraction that Tinder hasn’t quite managed to capture.

“An Evening of Lust, Sex & Brains”, presented by Guerilla Science, is designed to explore the science of attraction. We all have a pretty solid idea of what turns us on, but the question of tonight is— ‘But why?’

It’s a blustery Monday evening in February and a buzzing crowd has gathered in the basement of The Book Club in Shoreditch to learn a little something about what might draw a bird to a bee. This isn’t a mixer. It’s not speed dating. We’re about to get our science on. However, upon entering this lab, rather than safety goggles, we’re handed black blindfolds and wearing additional layers of protective clothing is not recommended.
The experts of the night are masters of attraction who lead us through a series of multisensory mini-experiments designed to test factors that influence attraction. The panel consists of Carlota Batres, who studies the role that facial preferences play in mate selection at Perception Lab, environmental historian and aroma connoisseur Julia Feuer-Cotter of the University of Nottingham, and Dr Sally Holloway, whose research focuses on the history of emotions.

The discussion begins with basics, specifically, the attractive power of the colour red. To illustrate the concept beyond its applications in the lingerie industry, we’re shown an image of a female baboon in heat. The tone is set: we’re definitely here for science.

As our first experiment, we’re asked to pair up and in the sexiest voice we can pull off, tell our partner about an embarrassing moment. To help melt any remaining ice, we’re asked to do so blindfolded. In a crowded space, this also means that we have to be close. Very close.

illustration of heart in silhouette of headWe’re then asked to raise one of two cards that we’ve been given. One reads ‘Turned on’ and the other, ‘Turned off’. Reactions to the experience are mixed.
The purpose of the exercise is to delve into the importance of voice and why we find certain tones to be more appealing. As you might expect, males often speak in a lower register when talking to someone they find attractive. For females, contrary to the allure of a husky timbre à la Scarlet Johansen, women tend to increase their vocal pitch when aroused. This isn’t just an intentional flirting technique as female vocal pitch naturally increases during ovulation to attract males.

Next, we consider scent. Blindfolds optional (yet strongly encouraged), we’re instructed to switch partners and take turns smelling first their arm, then their neck. As with each experiment, we repeat the polling process to gauge arousal. Each table is also given a cup of wooden sticks coated in androstanol, a steroidal pheromone which is naturally found in human sweat and urine. Commonly bottled and marketed as an eau de love potion for humans, androstanol is sprayed on female pigs in heat to promote procreation.

The intimacy of eye contact is not to be ignored. Staring into a stranger’s eyes for an unbroken minute can go one of two ways: intimate or awkward. While we gazed deeply into each other’s eyes (self-consciously focusing on one eye at a time, suppressing smirks, competitively resisting the urge to blink), an intense videogame-esque track droned in the background. The music was supposed to raise our heart rate to mimic fear, testing the theory that humans are more likely to find someone attracive if the encounter coincides with a state of physical (non-sexual) arousal. Perhaps Barry White shouldn’t be the romantic go-to after all.

The power of culinary aphrodisiacs is a well-explored phenomenon.
However, our task takes the experience a step further as we attempt to feed our partner, while blindfolded. What’s on the menu? Oysters? Figs? Try steamed baby carrots coated in crushed kale flakes. Both vegetables pack a serious carotenoid punch. Since foods rich in carotenoids enhance skin pigmentation and promote a sun-kissed glow, eating lots of them can make you look healthier and therefore more attractive. (The arousing qualities of being fed whilst blindfolded don’t require further explanation.)

quote about tastersTrays of plastic shot glasses are circulated, but they don’t contain Sambuca. Instead, they’re filled with paper test strips coated in Phenylthiocarbamide (PTC) and hard sweets. We place the PTC strips on our tongues. Some people look around waiting for something to happen while others gag. People who have the ‘tasting’ allele of ‘PTC gene’ TAS2R38 are able to taste the substance, while those who have the non-tasting allele cannot. ‘Tasting’ has a number of implications for mate selection. ‘Tasters’ are often attracted to more masculine mates while ‘non-tasters’ are attracted to more feminine mates. If a ‘taster’ and a ‘non-taster’ mate, their offspring will have one of each allele. Research suggests that this is beneficial to the offspring’s immune system.

The evening included a busy itinerary of other guided experiments such as dancing as a means of demonstrating physical fitness, smelling an assortment of aromas, and working in pairs to solve cryptic 19th century ‘hieroglyphic love letters’.

The crowd’s response to the event was overwhelmingly one of enthusiasm and intrigue. The Book Club offered an ideal venue to set a sultry tone for the evening. In terms of organisation, the event was beautifully managed, with smooth transitions between activities and plenty to keep attendees thoroughly engaged.

The likes of Match.com and eHarmony are probably here to stay; however, let’s not forget that love is a chemical reaction and if you’re aiming to make a breakthrough, you need to get to a lab and start experimenting.

If this got you hot and bothered for more science events, keep an eye on this space for upcoming Guerrilla Science events: http://guerillascience.org/calendar/

Erin Frick is studying for an MSc in Science Communication

Image: Katarina Pa, Alekksall