“Excuse me, how do these fortune cookies work?”
A bunch of us were standing in line at a “sensory speed dating” event when an anxious redhead named Mona asked me about the curved wafers being passed around on platters.
“I guess they’re all about sex?” Mona chirped after we exchanged fortunes. Sort of. Ours contained trivia about the mating habits of bonobos monkeys, and the fact that humans are the only mammals who develop “boobs” when not nursing.
Some 80 people were crowded into Littlefield, a bar and music venue in Brooklyn, which had been transformed to look like the set of The Bachelorette.
There were red tablecloths draped over tall, round tables, and soft, down-lighting that airbrushed everyone’s faces. It hardly mattered, as I spent most of the next two hours blindfolded, sniffing strangers’ armpits and caressing their faces—two of five sensory tests to help us consider potential mates.
Mona had seen an ad for the sensory speed dating event online (she’d speed-dated without the sensory element before) and wore a red velvet shirt with deep cleavage for the occasion. She’d tied her hair up in a bun with a frilly bow, and her mouth was shellacked with glittery lip gloss.
Mona looked more like Strawberry Shortcake than a typically stylish, thirtysomething single woman in New York City. But her sartorial choices fit in among the crowd at Littlefield, where the tittering women outnumbered the passively desperate men.
Early on, I found a seat between Justin, mid-30s and quiet, whose curly black hair looked like a jumble of steel wool, and Chris, a moon-faced 45-year-old wearing cargo pants and a pale blue shirt with eccentric white embroidery.
The evening was organized by Guerilla Science, a London- and New York-based science collective that “create events and installations for festivals, museums, galleries, and other cultural clients.”
They’d brought along a panel of experts to talk us through our experiments: Carlotta Batres, a postdoctoral research fellow at Gettysburg University, and Aaron Owen, an evolutionary biologist whose research is “centered in sexual selection.”
“People with symmetrical faces generally have strong immune systems,” Batres said while participants clumsily rubbed each other’s cheeks.
While a French man (who looked like Idris Elba) fed me a carrot canapé, Batres was explaining that “in primates, the giving and sharing of foods releases oxytocin, the bonding hormone.”
Hunger levels influence facial preferences, which means the hungrier you are the more likely you’ll be attracted to someone, according to Batres.
My senses were being bombarded with what sounded like pseudoscience; apparently “carrots increase attractiveness” and “fruit and vegetables make your face look healthier.” True or not—and perhaps I was swimming on oxytocin—but Batres’s data seemed irrelevant to my being publicly fed by a speed-dating Frenchman.
The emcee, petite and duck-footed with a boyish face, dispensed with corny jokes in game show host intonations. I looked around for other wincing guests, but there were none. People seemed to be enjoying it. The bad puns. The clumsy punchlines.
Perhaps the problem had less to do with science than taste.
As the awkward and partner-less crowd attempted to communicate our emotions through dance (blindfolded once again), we were told that “touch” is linked to areas of our brains that govern compassion; that women whose partners give them more hugs are less stressed; that if a man walks up to a bar and puts his arm on a woman, he’s more likely to get a yes (and get thrown out of a bar). The same applies to those who approach women on the street and ask for their phone number.
As the skin-crawling chorus of ‘Take My Breath Away’ echoed through the venue, and as we are moved into another group for another “scientific exercise” that would assist in finding a mate, it became depressingly clear that while science might offer clues on how to approach a women or how to elicit sympathy from a man, science can’t fix bad taste.
It’s nice to know which part of the brain activates pheromones, but it’s up to you to not wear cargo pants when trying to find your perfect match.
After we de-blindfolded, there was a brief Q&A, during which one participant asked if anyone had studied how scent knowledge might affect Tinder ratings (apparently yes: there exists a Tinder “smell dating” variant).
Some people talked closely at tables and others finished their conversations at the bar. I was on my way out when the Frenchman whose nose was buried in my armpit an hour earlier stopped me and offered a tip: “Don’t change your deodorant.”