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Looking for those ‘butterflies in the stomach’

Put two single people in one place and what do you get? Science! Psychologists at Leiden University will be conducting research on human attraction at the Lowlands festival on the 19th of August.

Have you been in love? If so, you have surely experienced that ‘butterflies in your tummy’ feeling. These ‘butterflies’ are more than just a nice metaphor. They represent all those signs that there is something going on in your body. Your heart beats faster, you start to perspire slightly and your pupils enlarge. You’re no longer completely in control of your bodily responses.

Sexual attraction

‘And we make good use of that,’ laughs PhD researcher Eliska Prochazkova. Together with nine other researchers she will conduct a study at the Lowlands music festival starting on the 19th of August. ‘We study whether we can predict people’s sexual attraction to one another purely based on non-verbal signals.’ 

Turtle doves

For their experiments the Leiden scientists have converted a shipping container into a test room. The idea is that two single festival-visitors sit opposite one another, separated by a curtain. Then the experiment can start. First, the test candidates are allowed to see one another briefly, for no more than three seconds. In the second round they have a bit more time to study each other, but they’re still not allowed to say anything. It’s only in the third round that the turtle doves are allowed to speak. Who knows, the right opening remark might just spark off a new romance.

Eye-tracking and electrodes

‘In the control room we will be recording all the non-verbal signals and physiological characteristics,’ says PhD researcher Friederike Behrens, one of the team members. ‘We will be using eye-tracking technology and electrodes on the skin to monitor how the body reacts to seeing the dating partner. And we can even see if the reactions synchronize between the partners; that way we want to test whether both partners experience the same feelings at the same time. Whether there’s a click, in other words.’ 


The festival visitors then fill in a questionnaire to indicate how much they liked their date and whether they want to see their partner again. The researchers hope – and expect – that your physiological responses will already have betrayed just how attracted you were to that guy or girl behind the curtain. And once the experiment is over? ‘I’ll be straight off to listen to Muse,’ says Behrens. 

This research is part of the CoPAN lab group at Leiden University. Led by Dr Mariska Kret, Leiden researchers are studying the psychological and neuro-physiological reasons behind social behaviour in humans and apes. Also, the technicians Maureen Meekel and Elio Sjak-Shie from the Faculty of Social Sciences (SOLO) have greatly contributed to the realization of the experimental set-up.

Lowlands Science is organised by BKB Campaign Agency, New Scientist and Lowlands and is supported by IBM, The Dutch Brain Foundation, SIA (the National Taskforce on Practice-Oriented Research) and KNAW (the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences).

Missed Lowlands?

No worries!  The dating experiment will also be part of the Night of Art & Knowledge. The test site will be in the Academy Building at Leiden University on September 17th.

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