Getting to know people is hard enough, but getting to know people while blindfolded? It’s easier than you might think. Welcome to Sensory Speed Dating.
A few weeks ago, I put on something nice and braved the New York City cold to attend an event that promised to turn attraction into a science. Or science into attraction? Either way, it involved relying on smell, hearing, taste, touch, and movement—every sense but sight—to suss out potential love interests.
The event wasn’t OKCupid’s latest stunt. It was hosted by Guerilla Science, a group dedicated to “revolutionizing” how people experience science by making it accessible. Our yenta for the evening was Heather Berlin, a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and host of Discovery Channel's Superhuman Showdown.
“We think we’re the masters of our own destiny and decisions, but there are a lot of things at play,” Berlin told Fusion, referring to the neurochemical processes that happen in the brain when we spend time with people. “The brain is dictating behavior.”
The key is trusting our gut. “That’s the unconscious telling us what we’re most compatible with," she said. "A lot of times, people don’t follow their gut, they follow who they think they should be with. What looks good on paper doesn’t necessarily correspond to who we’d be most compatible with.”
In ads for the event, organizers enticed “brave singles” to rely on their senses to reach “a new awareness of the dynamic unconscious” and “unlock the secrets of human attraction.” You never know, they said, you might even “get lucky.”
Dynamic unconscious? Unlocking secrets? Getting lucky? I was there.
The night began at a pub near Times Square—possibly the least sexy spot on the planet. The plan was to loosen up with a cocktail and mingling before heading to a “secret location” for the main event, where we would be blindfolded. One of the evening's rules was to bring a friend of the same gender, both to participate and take turns acting as a guide while the other person was blindfolded. I brought my roommate Janaye. Sweet, brave Janaye.
Inside the bar, we surveyed our Sensory Speed Dating comrades while we had the chance. The crowd was refreshingly diverse, from a young physics professor to a dude who looked like he walked a Marc Jacobs show. There were about fifty of us total, and a pretty even mix of men and women. We were all in our mid-twenties to mid-thirties, all cautiously excited. Before we knew it, the cocktail hour was over and we were trekking across midtown Manhattan for the night's grand experiment.
“Is it me or is this just like a middle-school dance?” a fellow female dater said as an organizer walked us across town. It was true. The group just happened to divide by gender. The women all stuck together, jovial and excited, and the men sort of dotted the outside of the woman circle. We even had a chaperone.
We finally arrived at the SeCrEt LoCaTiOn: the Urban Garden Room at One Bryant Park, which for the unfamiliar, is an indoor garden on the corner of the Bank of America Tower. (Also not especially sexy, but I digress.) About fifteen tables were woven between massive plants and installation pieces. As we entered, we were split by gender and given name tags, our seating arrangements, and of course, a blindfold.
The night would be divided into six rounds, each dedicated to a different sense, each tied to a scientific study. Participants would sit face-to-face, without the ability to see the other's face. Would we be attracted to our date’s voice? Drawn to his or her scent? Perhaps the smooth or rough skin of our date’s hands would spark something.
The first round was sound, in which daters got to know each other by talking, listening to the timbre of each other’s voices and seeing if they were audibly attracted to one another. Berlin explained that men find women’s voices to be more attractive when women are ovulating.
The second round was touch, inspired by studies revealing that mutual touch can be linked to elevated heart rates and, of course, intimacy in general. Participants were encouraged to explore each others faces, hair—whatever they were comfortable with, really. (Janaye had outlawed face-touching before the nigh began, so I had the pleasure of watching as she and an awkward-looking man held hands and arm wrestled.)
The third round, taste, consisted of dates feeding each other foods known to be aphrodisiacs—including basil, bananas, donuts, and jalapeños.
In the fourth round, smell, participants were instructed to do jumping jacks to break a sweat—then smell each other from neck to armpit, putting into practice the famous Swiss T-shirt study, which claims women can gauge genetic compatibility just from taking a whiff of a shirt worn by a dude for two nights.
In the fifth round, movement, daters danced with each other to Kool and the Gang's Jungle Boogie, to gauge not only if they had rhythm, but compatible rhythm.
Finally, at the end, daters were told to remove their blindfolds and make eye contact for a couple minutes, based on a study that found that (straight) strangers who made unbroken eye contact with the opposite sex reported “increased feelings of passionate love” for one another.
At the end of every round, daters would indicate whether they were interested in seeing the man or woman across from them again. If the two blindfolded folks both answered "yes," the organizers considered the pairing a match.
Olivia Koski, co-founder of Guerrilla Science USA and organizer of the event, spoke with Fusion about how the event came together. “I wanted to gradually increase the levels of intimacy,” Koski said. “Sure, people bought tickets, and they know it’s going to be a different experience, but I don’t want the first thing that people have to do to be smelling someone else."
Berlin was impressed with how game everyone was. “It was interesting how open people were,” she said. “We normally have these boundaries in terms of personal space that are just kind of cultural. People were definitely willing to break these comfort boundaries.”
The evening resulted in fifty out of a total of 150 matches. Afterward, organizers sent daters their matches, and if they really were interested, Guerrilla Science would facilitate the exchange of information. But for Koski, the event was more about inciting conversation.
“It’s an entry point into a discussion about neuroscience," she said. "Do you think about all the senses you use to communicate, or what effect they have on people?”
As for me and Janaye? Our shot at romance was cut short during the taste round, when my roommate's date innocently fed her a slice of jalapeño pepper, to which she is extremely sensitive. As the pepper singed her tongue, her eyes filled with tears, and she removed her blindfold. “I’m done,” she told me. It seemed our senses weren’t going to lead the way to love, after all. Not that night, anyway.
Perhaps I’ll just have to whip out the blindfold on future dates.
Guerilla Science is hosting another Sensory Speed Dating event this Saturday, April 4, at the Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn, NY. Check it out, if you're adventurous enough!