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Keeping Love Alive: Scientific American Does Its Part

With half of all first marriages ending in divorce, how can we build lasting relationships? A Scientific American event explores the science of love
acrobatic couple making heart shape with their bodies



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On Wednesday, March 10, I had the pleasure of making love with Scientific American's editor in chief, Mariette DiChristina—in front of a large audience, no less.

Hey, calm down. We didn’t make love with each other. We did something even better. We showed about a hundred smart, skeptical New Yorkers that we could, fairly easily and on demand, increase the love that people feel toward each other—people who are already in love, people who are just friends, and even total strangers.

The venue was the classy 92YTribeca, the fairly new home of art and intellect in lower Manhattan, and the excuse was Scientific American Mind's January/February cover story about how science can help you fall in love. Our presentation began, consistent with the occasion, with a prolonged hug that prompted laughter and applause.

When, eventually, the embrace ended, I asked four volunteers to come up on stage, and I paired them off into couples that had never met before. I then asked them, on a scale of 1 to 10 (where 1 was low and 10 was high), a) how much they liked each other, b) how much they loved each other, c) how close they felt to each other, and d) how attracted they were to each other.

Next, I asked the individuals in each couple simply to look deeply into each other’s eyes for two minutes in an exercise I call “Soul Gazing.” After the giggling stopped, they got down to business and started looking quite serious.

Then I asked for those numbers again: liking, loving, closeness and attraction. To the delight and astonishment of the audience, the numbers went up for all four people—14 percent overall.

But why should just four people have all the fun? I now asked everyone in the audience to turn toward the person in the seat next to him or her and gaze —after which I asked people to raise their hands if they felt closer to the person they had just faced. Nearly every hand went up.

Research and Love

Can emotional intimacy truly be increased on demand? Mariette now explored the issue by reviewing some of the scientific studies that have been conducted on this topic in recent years, which show, among other things, that:

* Emotional bonds are strengthened when people engage in physically arousing activities together (get thee to the gym)

* People tend to bond when they’re in frightening situations together (bungee jumping anyone?)

* Feelings of love indeed grow when total strangers simply gaze into each other’s eyes for two minutes (but please read on before you start staring at strangers on New York subways)

* People feel closer when they do new things together (been to the new Museum of Sex on 5th Avenue yet?)

More than 80 scientific studies demonstrate such phenomena. Mariette, switching to journalist mode, then asked me questions about the research, such as, “Isn’t staring at someone threatening? Why would people fall in love simply by gazing at each other? And why do any of these procedures work at all?”

Having studied such matters now for seven years, in part by interviewing people who are in arranged marriages in which love has grown over time, I answered as follows:

Emotional bonds often get stronger when people feel vulnerable, and this works for two reasons. First, when you see someone who is in a weak and vulnerable state, you often feel like comforting or protecting that person; those tendencies make you feel close to someone, and they often bring you physically closer, too. Second, when you are feeling vulnerable yourself, you might interpret your emotional state as a loving one—especially if someone nearby happens to reach out to comfort you. If two people feel vulnerable simultaneously, these two tendencies can interlock and increase synergistically.

Most of the experiences that lead to increases in emotional intimacy produce this kind of dynamic. Strong sexual attraction, scary situations, vigorous exercise and novel situations all make people feel vulnerable to some extent. And, yes, even gazing can have this effect. The difference between mutual gazing and staring is the consent; people are giving each other permission to invade their privacy in way that is normally quite threatening. It’s like saying, “Okay, you can see me naked. No problem.” Do you feel vulnerable? You bet.

Love Games

Enough talk. We spent the next half hour demonstrating three other techniques that quickly increased emotional bonds: “The Love Aura,” “Let Me Inside,” and the “I-Love-You Game.” In the last, two strangers took turns saying “I love you” to each other in different ways. In our culture, that phrase is one of the hardest things there is to say to someone; saying it makes people feel especially vulnerable. Our volunteers were nervous and giggly at first, but then became increasingly earnest and emphatic—intense, in fact. Their intimacy numbers nearly doubled in just over two minutes, and they embraced each other warmly the moment exercise ended. It was breathtaking to watch.

Was this just a series of parlor tricks? Not at all. I’ve become increasingly convinced over the years that the way we seek and form relationships in Western countries is deeply flawed—and that we can do better. Our relationships typically begin with a burst of physical attraction that we interpret, often incorrectly, as love. Over time, both the passion and the loving feelings subside. Worse still, we leave the entire process to chance—to the Fates, as it were. In some cultures in Africa and Asia, however, love is on a very different trajectory. Many couples are able to make love grow stronger over time, taking responsibility for their feelings and taking control over the process of loving. “First comes marriage, then comes love,” people say in India.

I now believe I understand a good deal about how this process works, and I believe that it can be packaged to suit Western tastes and needs without importing foreign cultures or the practice of arranged marriage. That was the message Mariette and I left with an appreciative—and dare I even say loving?—audience.

As I left the stage, a woman approached me and said that the gazing exercise, which she had done with man who was a total stranger to her, had made her cry. “There was a whole world in those eyes,” she said.

Yes, of course. We only have to learn how to see.

Want to feel the love? If you’re near the California Academy of Sciences on Thursday, March 25, Scientific American editor in chief Mariette DiChristina and contributing editor and distinguished psychologist Robert Epstein will speak about “The Science of Love” starting at 7:30 p.m. as part of the NightLife 2010 series.

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