Saturday, March 04, 2006

Sexual Chemistry

A few weeks ago, San Francisco Magazine decided that a sex column was déclassé and dropped “Metropolust.” Fine. I never felt quite comfortable being a sexpert anyway (people always assumed I must be an adventuress). Then the editor asked me to resurrect “Metropolust” as a dating column. Although I met Jordan at the tender age of twenty and have scarcely been on a date, I agreed.

My first dating column was about the Quiet Party (you can read my description of the silent soiree that I attended here). I toyed with various theories about the event’s popularity. But I wanted to see what a sexual anthropologist might say. I phoned Helen Fisher, a professor at Rutgers University and author, most recently of Why We Love (2004). She said that bedroom eyes and body language play a part in the Quiet Party’s success. But according to her, the real secret is dopamine, a neurotransmitter that produces “focused attention, elation, and energy.” Dopamine soars when we have new experiences and also when we’re falling in love. Fisher said: “Studies have found that if you drive up dopamine by doing something very exciting, people are more susceptible to falling in love.” The Quiet Party is nothing if not a new, exciting experience. What could be more novel than writing instead of typing, and silence, instead of noise? If Fisher is right, the attraction of the Quiet Party is not silence itself, but the novelty of silence.

The dopamine factor explains a lot. I couldn’t understand why there are so many new variations on the singles mixer, for some seemed tedious and others borderline humiliating. But now it makes sense. Daters crave novelty, for dopamine is their catnip.

So what does this mean for savvy singles? Must you now tax your imaginations to plan ever more inventive and novel dates? Should you take your crush on a vampire walking tour instead of dinner at Delfina? Should you go kayaking on the Bay instead of relaxing with a nice cocktail? Happily, there is no need. Novelty may drive up dopamine so that two people find each other more attractive, but alcohol, of course, has exactly the same effect.


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