5 Scientific Ways Your Senses Rule Your Love Life


While love may be blind in some respects, your five senses actually play an important role in determining who you perceive to be a suitable partner—whether you realize it or not. Here are just some of the subtle ways sensory experiences play a role in your dating life:


A number of studies indicate that eye contact is vital to social encounters. One brain-scan study found that when people held sustained eye contact, they began to blink simultaneously, and after a while, their brain activity actually synced up. These long gazes can make people feel more attracted to one another. A set of 1989 studies found that after strangers stared into each other’s eyes for two full minutes, they reported an increase in feelings of passionate love.

Eye contact also signals that the person could reciprocate your affections. Another study found that people are more attracted to faces that are looking directly at them and (crucially) smiling. “Collectively, our findings indicate that attraction is influenced not only by physical beauty, but also by the extent to which a person appears open to engaging the observer,” the researchers wrote in 2006.

Though most research on the science of romance tends to focus on heterosexual pairs, studies have found that LGBT people also reveal some subconscious sexual feelings with their eyes. A 2012 study found that men’s pupils dilated in response to images they found sexy. Straight men’s eyes dilated in response to a sexy video of a woman, gay men’s eyes dilated in response to a sexy video of a man, and bisexual men’s eyes dilated in response to both. (But to make things more complicated, straight women’s eyes dilated in response to videos of both men and women, despite their reported feelings of arousal.)


Smell plays an important role in attraction, though it may not always be obvious. Though the research isn’t entirely clear-cut, there’s evidence to suggest that people subconsciously use smell to ferret out appropriate mates.

Famously, researchers have tested volunteers’ attraction to the scents of potential partners by having them smell dirty t-shirts that have been worn by someone of the opposite sex. Several versions of this type of study [PDF] have found that women tend to prefer the smell of sweat from men whose immune systems genetically differ from their own. In theory, this would be evolutionarily beneficial, because it would prevent mating between relatives and increase the chances that their children would have strong immune systems.

Other studies have linked pheromones to sexual orientation and gender perception. One found that gay men’s brains react to testosterone from male sweat as a sexual pheromone, while they smelled estrogen derived from women’s urine as a normal odor. Another study, in 2014, found that when people attracted to men (straight women and gay men) smelled cloves laced with a testosterone derivative, they perceived the gender presentation of a simulated person walking toward them as masculine. In turn, when straight men smelled an estrogen derivative, they perceived the person’s gender presentation as feminine.


Romantic touch isn't the same as other tactile sensations. According to one brain-scanning study, when people think about touching a romantic partner, it activates a different part of the brain than thinking about touching an inanimate object would. The researchers found that this brain activity correlated with the degree of passionate love the partners reported on a survey.

And in the right context, a light touch can be quite persuasive. A 2007 study found that when a man touched a woman’s arm lightly while asking her to dance, she was more likely to say yes. Other research has found that touch increases the brain’s response to an emotional situation. “Such enhanced processing may then, among others, boost empathy and increase the likelihood that the touch recipient acts in favor of the toucher,” the researchers wrote in 2011.

In the context of love, though, touch can be more than just pleasurable. Touching a romantic partner may help protect you against stressors. Some research has found associations between hugging a long-term lover and lower blood pressure [PDF]. In one 2003 study, people who held hands and hugged their live-in partner before a stressful event (public speaking) exhibited fewer physiological signs of stress, including lower blood pressure and heart rate, compared to people who rested quietly before the public speaking task. A 2007 study specifically looking at women’s stress responses found the same result.


A 2004 study found that your voice may carry some information about your sex life. Researchers asked volunteers to listen to anonymous recorded voices and rate their attractiveness, then compared those ratings to survey information about the speakers. They found that, among other things, people with attractive voices tended to have more sexual partners than people with unattractive voices. So maybe the attractiveness of your voice does indeed correlate with whether you’ve got game.

Another study from 2014 found that people change their voices when speaking to someone they find attractive. The study looked at people speaking both English and Czech. Men’s voices varied more in pitch and went lower when they were speaking to a woman they were attracted to than someone they weren’t attracted to.


Kissing isn’t an entirely universal human activity, but it is a popular one. While its exact purpose isn’t clear, some researchers suggest that it might be about taste-testing “gustatory cues found in skin oils and saliva compounds,” as one study puts it.

You actually share a lot of information about your immune system when you swap spit. In 2014, Dutch researchers brought 21 couples into the lab and had them make out. They took saliva samples from everyone before and after they kissed to test how oral bacteria might play a role in attraction and love, and in between kisses, they gave one partner a probiotic yogurt drink to test how much bacteria is swapped when people make out. They estimated that as much as 80 million bacteria are swapped between a couple in 10 seconds of kissing. They also found that couples had oral microbiomes that were more similar to one another's than the microbiota of unrelated people, and the more they kissed, the more similar their bacterial colonies were.

And if your partner's spit tastes sweet to you, you might just like them more. It seems that sweet tastes prime you for love—one study found that people who ate sweets in the lab were more likely to express interest in a hypothetical relationship [PDF].

The American Museum of Natural History
10 Surprising Ways Senses Shape Perception
The American Museum of Natural History
The American Museum of Natural History

Every bit of information we know about the world we gathered with one of our five senses. But even with perfect pitch or 20/20 vision, our perceptions don’t always reflect an accurate picture of our surroundings. Our brain is constantly filling in gaps and taking shortcuts, which can result in some pretty wild illusions.

That’s the subject of “Our Senses: An Immersive Experience,” a new exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Mental Floss recently took a tour of the sensory funhouse to learn more about how the brain and the senses interact.


Woman and child looking at pictures on a wall

Under normal lighting, the walls of the first room of “Our Senses” look like abstract art. But when the lights change color, hidden illustrations are revealed. The three lights—blue, red, and green—used in the room activate the three cone cells in our eyes, and each color highlights a different set of animal illustrations, giving the viewers the impression of switching between three separate rooms while standing still.


We can “hear” many different sounds at once, but we can only listen to a couple at a time. The AMNH exhibit demonstrates this with an audio collage of competing recordings. Our ears automatically pick out noises we’re conditioned to react to, like an ambulance siren or a baby’s cry. Other sounds, like individual voices and musical instruments, require more effort to detect.


When looking at a painting, most people’s eyes are drawn to the same spots. The first things we look for in an image are human faces. So after staring at an artwork for five seconds, you may be able to say how many people are in it and what they look like, but would likely come up short when asked to list the inanimate object in the scene.


Our senses often are more suggestible than we would like. Check out the video above. After seeing the first sequence of animal drawings, do you see a rat or a man’s face in the last image? The answer is likely a rat. Now watch the next round—after being shown pictures of faces, you might see a man’s face instead even though the final image hasn’t changed.


Every cooking show you’ve watched is right—presentation really is important. One look at something can dictate your expectations for how it should taste. Researchers have found that we perceive red food and drinks to taste sweeter and green food and drinks to taste less sweet regardless of chemical composition. Even the color of the cup we drink from can influence our perception of taste.


Sight isn’t the only sense that plays a part in how we taste. According to one study, listening to crunching noises while snacking on chips makes them taste fresher. Remember that trick before tossing out a bag of stale junk food.


Have you ever been so focused on something that the world around you seemed to disappear? If you can’t recall the feeling, watch the video above. The instructions say to keep track of every time a ball is passed. If you’re totally absorbed, you may not notice anything peculiar, but watch it a second time without paying attention to anything in particular and you’ll see a person in a gorilla suit walk into the middle of the screen. The phenomenon that allows us to tune out big details like this is called selective attention. If you devote all your mental energy to one task, your brain puts up blinders that block out irrelevant information without you realizing it.


Girl standing in optical illusion room.

The most mind-bending room in the "Our Senses" exhibit is practically empty. The illusion comes from the black grid pattern painted onto the white wall in such a way that straight planes appear to curve. The shapes tell our eyes we’re walking on uneven ground while our inner ear tells us the floor is stable. It’s like getting seasick in reverse: This conflicting sensory information can make us feel dizzy and even nauseous.


If our brains didn’t know how to adjust for lighting, we’d see every shadow as part of the object it falls on. But we can recognize that the half of a street that’s covered in shade isn’t actually darker in color than the half that sits in the sun. It’s a pretty useful adaptation—except when it’s hijacked for optical illusions. Look at the image above: The squares marked A and B are actually the same shade of gray. Because the pillar appears to cast a shadow over square B, our brain assumes it’s really lighter in color than what we’re shown.


The human brain is really good at recognizing human faces—so good it can make us see things that aren’t there. This is apparent in the Einstein hollow head illusion. When looking at the mold of Albert Einstein’s face straight on, the features appear to pop out rather than sink in. Our brain knows we’re looking at something similar to a human face, and it knows what human faces are shaped like, so it automatically corrects the image that it’s given.

All images courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History unless otherwise noted.

Learn to Spot the Sneaky Psychological Tricks Restaurants Use

While dining out, you may have noticed (but perhaps didn’t question) some unusual features—like prices missing dollar signs, or burgers served on plates that could accommodate a baby cow.

These aren’t just arbitrary culinary decisions, as the SciShow’s Hank Green explains in the video below. Restaurants use all kinds of psychological tricks to make you spend more money, ranging from eliminating currency symbols (this makes you think less about how much things cost) to plating meals on oversize dinnerware (it makes you eat more). As for the mouthwatering language used to describe food—that burger listed as a "delectable chargrilled extravagance," for example—studies show that these types of write-ups can increase sales by up to 27 percent.

Learn more psychological tricks used by restaurants (and how to avoid falling for them) by watching the video below. (Or, read our additional coverage on the subject.)


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