I spent this past Saturday night blindfolded in a room full of eager strangers, learning about my dynamic unconscious. Over the course of the evening I cycled through five potential mates, one for each of my senses.
With the first man, I had a conversation. We leaned in close and I tried to take note of the cadence and lilt of his voice as he told me about the dystopian novel he was writing. The second man and I touched faces, then at his request we pushed and pulled on each other's hands because it reminded him of salsa dancing. I fed the third man a banana. I sniffed the fourth man's armpits after we did a series of jumping jacks. For the fifth man, I took my blindfold off and we stared into each other's eyes for a long minute.
About 40 of us were gathered in the basement of the Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn. We were there for a night of Sensory Speed Dating organized by Guerilla Science, a London- and New York-based group that creates pop-up science events and installations.
The speed dating worked like this: Male participants sat blindfolded at tables set up around the room. With the help of a guide, the blindfolded women rotated around, engaging with a different man for each activity. At the end of every round, people could mark down on a sheet whether they would be open to going on a date with the person they just interacted with. After the event, the organizers would look for matches and connect people who expressed mutual interest in each other.
In between rounds of touching and tasting, we learned science from Heather Berlin, a neuroscientist at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and host of the Discovery Channel series Superhuman Showdown.
"Much of our behavior is guided by sensory processing happening outside of our awareness. Your brain is making decisions all the time, you become aware of it after the fact, and then you kind of make these post-hoc explanations for your behavior," she said.
Sensory speed dating hopefully gives people the opportunity to engage in behaviors they normally feel they can't
This extends to our romantic preferences, according to Berlin. Cues like the sound of other people's voices, how they smell, and how they move their bodies all dictate our attractions. "The point is, what you're consciously aware of might not be the real reason why you're attracted to someone," she said.
Guerilla Science's event follows on the heels of the trendy pheromone party, in which participants bring sweaty T-shirts they've slept in for three days, throw their shirts in anonymous bags, and then go around sniffing those bags to find possible mates. Sensory speed dating riffs off the same idea, but it goes beyond just smell, integrating all five basic senses.
Unconscious processes govern our feelings and decisions, perhaps more so than we'd like to admit, Berlin told us. As an example of how touch can prime our reactions to people, she told us about studies like this one from 2008: 41 Yale undergrads showed up at the university's psychology building expecting to participate in a research study on the fourth floor. A hired research assistant escorted the participants up the elevator one by one. Each time she casually asked the student the hold her coffee cup while she recorded some information. Half of the time her cup held hot coffee and half of the time it held iced coffee.
Later the researchers behind the study concluded that cup temperatures possibly influenced how participants perceived other people. After reading a neutral description of a hypothetical "Person A," people who held hot coffee tended to assign warmer traits such as "generous," "social," and "caring" to Person A's personality than people who held iced coffee.
Science seemed to draw many of the evening's participants. Several told me that they were open to the idea of leaving with potential matches, but also just liked the idea of a fun evening spent learning about the neuroscience of attraction.
"I would say I'm here for the science," a participant named Tom told me. "I think we all know these things intuitively, that we're driven by the sensory bits of ourselves, but it's interesting to see them isolated and treated one at a time."
Sensory speed dating hopefully gives people the opportunity to engage in behaviors they normally feel they can't, said Olivia Koski, co-founder of Guerilla Science's USA chapter and organizer of the event. She hopes that the event gives people permission on multiple fronts: giving adults permission to play like children, giving singles permission to meet new people, and giving people permission to explore their senses openly. "We want to break down barriers," she said.
My fellow speed daters seemed to be a self-selecting crowd of gutsy, curious people. At the open-ended directive to spend three minutes touching each other (ready-set-go!) many participants immediately got comfortable holding hands, massaging scalps and playing with each other's earlobes. At one point, two participants started kissing as they smelled each other.
"What other speed dating event would that happen at?" Koski marveled.
The results seem to be generally favorable: at the last event in New York, about 50 out of 150 interactions resulted in a mutual "yes." Andy Han, a participant in that event, said that he left the event with three matches and has been texting with one of them since.
Moving forward, Koski wants to broaden the scope of the event to other cities, spaces and communities. The events in New York have been limited straight people, so she wants to plan a queer edition. A lot of the science behind attraction can reinforce gender norms, she said. She is interested in questioning these assumptions with queer sensory speed dating. Others have requested a sensory speed "friending" event for platonically exploring their senses with other people, she said.
Beyond that, Koski is also toying with the idea of moving sensory speed dating online. "What would digital sensory speed dating look like?" she posed to me, mentioning the possibility of having participants upload audio clips or even digital scents onto a dating website profile.
In a separate conversation, Berlin took it a step further, bringing up the possibility of integrating DNA sequencing into online dating. "Maybe matchmaking organizations would be better off doing neurochemical profiles of people—matching people based on brain chemistry—or seeing whose immune systems are compatible," she said.
It's freaky stuff, but daring, playful speculation is what Guerilla Science is all about, according to Koski. "A lot of our work blurs the line between fantasy and reality," she said.
By the end of the night, I had marked "yes" to three out of my five activity partners. I'm still waiting to hear back from Guerilla Science about whether or not I got any matches. If it turns out I did, I'm open to the idea of going on a date. But I have to admit—after a night of blindfolded jumping jacks and massages, I'm a little bored at the idea of going to a bar and talking.
All photos: Steph Yin