August 17, 2013
This summer Guerilla Science hired two spectacular interns (paid, mind you) with the generous sponsorship of the Wellcome Trust. Marissa Chazan, a freshly minted cognitive neuroscience masters student from Sussex worked tirelessly to help us produce the best range of events we’ve ever held at the Secret Garden Party. She tells us about her baby: an afternoon session of Sensory Speed Dating…
This summer Guerilla Science turned matchmaker with a session of Sensory Speed Dating at the Secret Garden Party festival. Armed with a plethora of knowledge – thanks to outstanding evolutionary psychologist Rob Burriss – we explored how we use our senses in the strange science of attraction.
First: forget love at first sight, what about love at first smell?
Round one saw our group of blindfolded singletons using their noses to take cautious whiffs of potential partners’ sweaty armpits. Why would we ask grubby mid-festival strangers to smell each other blindfolded? Well, aside from the fact that it was quite amusing to watch, it was also in the interest of science: people are partial to the smells of others that are genetically different, which ensures a healthy genetic diversity when they mate. So sexual selection is actually sensual selection. Wouldn’t Darwin be proud?!
Next our love-hungry hopefuls used their sense of touch to rate a second lot of prospective dates: could they feel out a fancy? Rather than orchestrating a mass-groping session, we simply had the participants feel each other’s faces: a twist on a standard face perception task.
Rob explained that variations in facial features advertise differences in health and genetics, thereby determining our sexual allure—even beard length may signal to potential suitors a man’s implicit genetic attractiveness.
Round three was all about taste, so our pairs of blindfolded strangers were asked to seductively feed each other the decidedly unsexy combination of cherry tomatoes, carrot cake, raw kale, and chocolate.
Eating particular fruits and vegetables can boost different types of skin pigments and make you look more attractive; as Rob clarified, a carrot is better than a sunbed. We also unearthed the sad truth about aphrodisiacs like chocolate: there is no reliable scientific evidence that they work. However, studies have shown that nutmeg can increase libido in rats, so we doused our carrot cake in nutmeg hoping to get our speed-daters as randy as rats…
The hearing round saw our newly partnered singles (still blindfolded of course) telling their best pick-up lines, jokes, or funny stories.
Humour has been shown to be scientifically sexy, while non-verbal characteristics of speech, such as pitch, also affect our instinctive attraction to others.
Round five was definitely the most entertaining – from our point of view: movement. While people commonly assume there are just five senses, in fact there are many more, perhaps at least 20 (although scientists disagree on the exact number).
In this round our blindfolded singletons grinded with different partners to the funky disco sounds of “Jungle Boogie” by Kool And The Gang. As it turns out, how well you move your body affects how attractive you are, because it reliably communicates important information about your condition and vigour.
Last, but not least, we came to the sight round. Finally our hopefuls could quietly feast their eyes upon each other. Evidence shows that this is the quickest way to fall for someone, but we decided to meddle a little more by playing some different kinds of music…
For one partner, we played “Sexual Healing” by Marvin Gaye, because sexy music has been scientifically shown to encourage love at first sight. For the next partner, on the other hand, we blasted “Creep” by Radiohead. Hearing Thom Yorke’s soft voice crooning, “I’m a creep, I’m a weirdo”, doesn’t exactly set the mood (our control condition if you will). This rings true in the academic literature, because, as Rob explained, women are more likely to give their number to men when listening to romantic songs than other incongruous music.
The pay off came after the rounds were finished and the score sheets tallied as we spotted some of the matches getting to know each other better outside the tent: it seems as though Guerilla Science might just be cupid’s geeky little brother…
Many thanks to Marissa for working tirelessly all summer! All pics of her Sensory Speed Dating creation here on our Flickr Site.
August 13, 2013
Chemists Tom Varley and Rose Gray of University College London joined us at the Secret Garden Party for Drugs Day to explore the mysteries of olfaction with a range of intoxicating chemicals, including ether and chloroform. They tell us what it was like shoving a bottle of ammonia into somebody’s face at a festival – and why the science of smell is just so intriguing…
It’s amazing what people will try if you’re wearing a lab coat! After all, asking complete strangers at a festival to sniff a bottle of chloroform is either going to result in further curiosity, or a call to the police. Thankfully, whether it was down to our lab coats, haziness from the night before, or just the atmosphere of the Secret Garden Party, the crowd was keen to sample our olfactory offerings.
Armed with a suitcase packed with weird and wonderful chemicals (and some molecular models too), we were let loose on the Friday morning crowd. Some of our samples sparked reactions of delight (such as vanillin, the dominant smell molecule in vanilla); some were met with fascination (mostly chloroform and ether, both previously used as general anaesthetics); others made people run away, coughing and spluttering (two major culprits were ammonia and the vile, sulphurous mercaptans – we didn’t even fully open the bottles!).
Besides wanting to see people’s reaction after they take a hefty hit of ether, we did have other reasons for wanting to talk about olfaction. Our brains have a staggering capacity for interpreting odours: as we saw at SGP, our reactions to smell can be extremely powerful: they can bring back vivid memories and deep emotions, or make us gag and recoil in horror. Various theories have been developed to try and explain why certain molecules smell certain ways, but none have ever really succeeded – it is still a mystery.
Many theories have focused on the shape of the molecules: that either the entire molecule, or parts of it, bind to receptors in the nose and trigger a signal. The signals are processed in the brain and interpreted as an odour. Though convenient, this model falls short in a lot of cases, as shape and scent don’t always correlate. Another theory is that odours depend on the vibrations of the atoms in the molecules. Understandably, trying to explain how the nose can act as a spectroscope is quite difficult, and this idea still doesn’t explain everything. For example, this theory would predict that mirror image molecules (enantiomers) should smell identical, but in reality they often smell completely different.
Bringing it back to SGP… we decided to carry out our own little experiments to test these theories. Along with chloroform (CHCl3), we also had its deuterated analogue chloroform (CDCl3) – here the hydrogen atom is replaced with its heavier isotope, deuterium, which barely affects the shape but does affect the vibrational frequency. We found that the vast majority of people could tell the difference. Though results have been conflicting, some studies have found that humans can distinguish isotopes, and flies can be trained to avoid deuterated odorants – support for the theory that vibration does play some role.
So, this puts us in a bit of a pickle: we know from smelling enantiomers that molecular shape must be slightly important, but using shape alone can’t account for the differing smell of isotopically labelled molecules. However, a new (and slightly controversial) idea involves a bit of both, along with a bit of quantum mechanics, proposing a sort of “swipe card” mechanism: an odorant molecule must have approximately the right shape to fit into the slot, and the right vibrational frequency to trigger a signal from the receptor. Though complicated (inelastic electron tunnelling plays a crucial part), this idea is fascinating.
At SGP we displayed a variety of smells, from the exquisite to the atrocious. We saw a huge range of reactions, but a common theme was curiosity: to smell unusual things, but also to discover how it works. The same can be said for the scientific community. We don’t know how or when the mystery of olfaction will be solved, but there is definitely some exciting research going on – watch this space…
August 17, 2011
I expected to smell better than two boys who had not washed for 40 days.
I did not expect to be deemed less attractive than an orang-utan.
“You will never live this down,” my best friend grinned.
The things we do for science.
At the Feast of Stenches at the Secret Garden Party this past July, we presented our audience with an array of human scents for them to sample, judge and rate: two boys, a woman (myself), and an ape (Hannah, a female orang-utan, only revealed to be non-human after the judging).
More than 50 eager noses took turns sniffing our Smell Stations, plastic boxes containing ripped shreds of fabric from t-shirts worn by our four research subjects.
This was a Guerilla Science take on the famous t-shirt experiments, which investigate the molecular basis of attraction and by examining how humans preferentially rate the smells of other people.
“We humans usually think that we pick our mates according to how they look – we think of ‘love at first sight’ – we don’t appreciate the importance of smell,” says Dr Leslie Knapp, a biological anthropologist who specialises in immunogenetics at the University of Cambridge and a global authority on the relationship between smell and attraction in primates. “But studies of primates and even studies of humans have shown that our ability to smell is very important, even in present day society – how we perceive the smell of someone has an influence on how we react to them, and there is good evidence to suggest that it has important influences on how we choose our mates.”
Anyone who has ever known the smell of a lover may be able to relate: the scent of that certain someone is utterly distinct, wholly individual, and – when it belongs to the right person – completely intoxicating. Once upon a time, it was the smell of someone that lay in the crease between his nose and his face that made me weak in the knees.
The mysterious charm and allure of a particular person’s scent is seemingly impossible to put into words, though a few have uttered some rather poignant phrases: Napoleon is reputed to have written to Josephine, “Will return to Paris tomorrow evening. Don’t wash.”
July 2, 2011
For our Smelly Tweeter competition – a challenge to last 40 days and 40 nights without washing – contestant Daniel Farrel kept a regular blog about his experiences: 40 Days Of Filth.
[There have been] some pretty good reactions from people… Generally the reaction’s been a sort of vaguely amused disgust… My girlfriend has started to refer to me as ‘Stinky’, and she does claim I was unpleasant this morning, but again I reckon this is the result of her knowledge of my cleanliness not its actual effect…
Either I’m going to start to reek and everyone will notice or, and I think this is probably more likely, I’ll not be too noticeable and people will start to forget about it pretty quickly.
Not that I won’t smell at all, merely that I don’t think it’s going to get unbearable, and I do have some tactics planned…. [such as] nudity. My thinking is that if I spend most of my time at home bollock naked and exposed to the air it will mitigate the smell a bit. Even if not then it’ll keep me amused. Could be a little awkward if any of my friends decide to drop by unexpectedly though…
There was a point yesterday; when the ambient temperature in the office was about 24C and I could vaguely smell myself even through freshly laundered clothes; when I did start to get a bit paranoid about it, but I think it should be OK. Today was a cooler and my odour was definitely less obvious…
I’ve got used to the vague stickiness and greasiness that goes along with being unclean and my girlfriend doesn’t seem to mind physical contact. She did roll over the other morning and end up with her nose in my armpit which lead to a fairly comic reaction but apart from that it’s appears to be fine. No real complaints and only the occasion ‘I can smell you from here’ from the other side of the living room….
I am sitting less than three metres from a bathtub. This is torture. I will persevere. I WILL persevere…
It’s the last day. I’m a little disappointed. I’m not exactly going to miss the many and various odours that the different parts of me are currently producing, not exactly. There is a strange sort of comfort to be had from your own smell though. The one produced at about armpit level that is; any lower than the waist and things can be a bit shocking…
Maybe not disappointed, more preemptively nostalgic. I am the source of a variety of distinct odours. Not strong necessarily, but present, and mine. In some ways it’s strangely comforting. I smell undeniably of myself.
Illuminating. Read all of Daniel’s thoughts, opinions and complaints here.