The scientific handbook of love

 
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By Khaled Diab

For the perplexed this Valentine’s, The Chronikler offers this “scientific” guide to winning hearts and getting high on the “drug” of love.

Tuesday 14 February 2012

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

By some twist of fate, we arranged to go out this evening before we realised that it was Valentine’s Day. We found the coincidence unfortunate because we’ve always scoffed at this festival of naff consumerism and kitsch infatuation. People should strive to make love a year-round affair, despite the obvious risks involved – one scientist appears to have just classified love as a Class A drug.

“Intense passionate love uses the same system in the brain that gets activated when a person is addicted to drugs,” said Arthur Aron, the researcher behind the study in question. Of course, anyone who has been in love or has listened to rock music – the inimitable Alice Cooper even compared it to poison running through his veins – already knows this and does not need an expensive study to confirm it. In fact, “love addiction” is a recognised psychological condition.

Nevertheless, addicts will tell you that the highs of the love drug and its Rock’n’Roll are worth the potential downs and withdrawal symptoms. But for those perplexed who want to get hooked and start tripping out on love or infatuation, can science offer them any guidance? Well, according to numerous boffins who have tried to make a science out of the hitherto art of love and romance, it certainly can. So here is The Chroniklers “scientific” handbook of love, dating and courting.

As we are constantly told, first impressions count. Depressingly, according to one study, most people don’t even give each other the benefit of an exchange of words and form enduring impressions in a matter of milliseconds. Looked at romantically, though, it could be evidence of “love at first sight”.

If, like me, you are someone who needs time before people appreciate your finer points, what can you do to make the right first impression? Don’t despair, science is there with some suggestions.

If you want someone to find you attractive on the first encounter or date, a good scientifically sound strategy is to look them straight in the eyes and smile. Preferably, make sure your eyes are smiling, too. Also, if you’re a man, one study suggests that you should time your encounter not to coincide with your date’s period, because  women are apparently most responsive to corny chat-up lines at the most fertile period in their menstrual cycle, although the scientists do not provide any tips as to how to extract such a delicate piece of information.

Oh, and don’t forget to turn up the smile slowly to enable the onlooker to bask in your warmth – a “long-onset smile”, as it is known in the literature – while tilting your head slightly. While you’re doing this, cross your fingers that you don’t come across as a weirdo with neck ache. The supremely confident – or arrogant – should be warned that, even if their interlocutor reciprocates, this may not necessarily be a “come on”. One group of researchers has found that some women chat happily and flirt, even if they have absolutely no interest in the man – which is bound to make the bashful and proud even more tongue-tied.

So, how can you tell if someone finds you attractive?

Research suggests that people tend to choose partners who look like their opposite sex parents. To my mind, this is not only troublingly Oedipal, I don’t think I’ve ever been attracted to anyone who looks like a family member.

More worryingly still, many seem to be drawn to partners who look like them – so much for “opposites attract”. In fact, there is even evidence that a surprising number of people are highly attracted to opposite sex images of themselves.

So, the self-centred among us can kill two birds with a single stone: increase their chances of finding a partner by seeking out someone who bears a resemblance to them and indulge their narcissistic impulses.

Of course, some people are fortunate enough to be widely regarded as attractive because they have the right facial and physical proportions. But old macho ideals are on the way out. In fact, most women, one study suggests, find a more “feminine” face alluring in men. This is good news for metrosexuals and might explain why many women are so drawn to the boyish good-looks of Johnny Depp. And for those who aren’t endowed with a baby face, it might be time to invest in that “guyliner” and “manscara”.

But you don’t have to be one of the beautiful people with a perfect figure to find romance or get laid. In fact, the best way to a man’s heart for women who do not fit the emaciated size zero is not through his stomach, but it is to make sure he doesn’t get enough food! Hunger, it seems, makes some men want to feast on their date. So, this Vqlentine, book a table at a nouvelle cuisine restaurant.

Besides, there are people out there, including good-looking ones, who prefer brains over beauty. The scientific evidence suggests that choosing intelligence is more common among women than men. Then again, other research points to the fact that there are plenty of women who go for looks.

A contradiction? Yes and no. Given the sheer diversity, complexity and individuality of human interactions, certain patterns are bound to hold true in certain circumstances, but the exceptions will at times outnumber the “rule”. So, the best strategy is to throw away the science books and embark on your own unique experiments in the laboratory of love.

 

This article is loosely based on an article published by Khaled Diab in The Guardian on 19 December 2008.

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A brief history of brainy women

 
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By Khaled Diab

Where does Gail Trimble fit in the brainy women’s hall of fame?

February 2009

Some men define themselves by which part of the female anatomy they prefer: breasts, legs, arse, etc. Personally, I’m more a brains and face kind of guy. I’ve always been attracted to intelligent women with beautiful facial features, and my wife ticks those boxes for me.

Gail Trimble, the grand boffin of University Challenge who seemed to have a Google implant in her brain, has ventured into relatively uncharted territory for brainy women: she has become a media sensation. Not only have her lightening reflexes and her supercomputer brainpower won her a legion of admiring fans, she has even become something of a sex icon, complete with an offer to pose for a lads’ magazine – which goes to prove that there are lads out there who appreciate brains and not just ‘booty’.

However, not everyone was impressed, with some bloggers and tabloids railing against her for being “smug” and “superior”. Shockingly, the Daily Mash reported that, despite the protective shelter of the body of Christ (Corpus Christi), Trimble was to be burnt as a witch, apparently because she recites “the periodic table backwards in Aramaic while dancing naked in a circle with a murder of gigantic, two-headed crows”.

Of course, that’s far-fetched satire today, but this fate was a real occupational hazard for some of the brainiest women of yesteryear. Take Hypatia of Alexandria, who has the dual distinction of being the first and last great female philosopher of the classical era.

The Hellenic polymath must have been well pleased with herself when she became the first woman to head Alexandria’s Platonist school and, in that great Greek philosophical tradition, donning her scholar’s robes, she toured the town engaging in public debate and interpreting the works of other philosophers.

However, trouble was a-brewing for Hypatia. Although she was well-admired across the Hellenic world, she had amassed powerful enemies in the nascent Church, especially in the shape of Alexandria’s bishop Cyril. Eventually, her “pagan” ideas and gender were to cost her her life as an angry Christian mob waylaid her chariot and brutally murdered her. It is ironic that the first notable female scholar of the Greek tradition also became the last.

Hypatia is one of numerous brainy women through the ages whom I have become familiar with as part of a fascinating project – at least for me – I am co-operating on which explores the contribution women have made to science over the centuries.

Based on the women I have researched, a certain pattern is discernible in their quest for success and recognition: they often had to become honorary men, they were forced into marginal areas of learning (which ironically often put them at the cutting edge of new knowledge), and they quite literally felt compelled to be second to nun in their morality, foreswearing carnal pleasures and embracing chastity.

Hypatia, for instance, reportedly rejected a suitor by showing him her menstrual rags (tampons to us), claiming that this showed there was “nothing beautiful” about carnal desires.

Of course, it wasn’t all black and white. For instance, the German philosopher, physician and composer Hildegard von Bingen, who was saintly in her ways although she never quite became a saint, was an abbess and, hence, a virgin, yet she was possibly the first European to have described the female orgasm (albeit in medieval terms).

In order to advance her career, Hildegard quite literally needed divine intervention: the visions she claimed to experience helped her to get around the medieval Church’s restrictions on women preaching and practising philosophy and the sciences. Of course, I use the term ‘science’ here loosely.

Although she was at the cutting-edge of learning for her time, the bulk of her work could only be described as superstition. For instance, a remedy she proposes for a hangover in one of her medical works involves dunking a bitch in water and drinking the resulting murky liquid. If any readers feel brave enough to try this, please report back on your findings.

Starting in the 19th century, things started to get decidedly better for women, although they still had to swim against a tide of prejudice. Believe it or not but the world’s first computer geek was not a bespectacled, socially inept male teenager, but an English aristocrat of the female persuasion.

Ada Lovelace, the only legitimate daughter of Lord Byron who never met her erratic father, was a mathematical whiz-kid and the mother of all computer nerds. She is credited with having written the world’s first ‘computer programme’ for Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine (the ‘first computer’). Babbage called her his “enchantress of numbers”.

In the 20th century, women played pivotal roles in many of the newest areas of physics and chemistry. The most legendary is probably the Marie Curie, the only woman to win two Nobel prizes.

Despite advances in the status of women, however, some did not get the recognition they deserved. Rosalind Franklin is a prime example: her images of DNA were essential to the cracking of its now famous double-helix structure, but she did not receive a Nobel prize for it. Even James Watson, despite his dodgy views on race, agreed that she should have also got one. Unfortunately, Nobels are not awarded posthumously.

Even today, the glass ceiling is still around to a certain degree, but it is far smaller and more permeable and, at least in principle, it does not exist anymore.

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 28 February 2009. Read the related discussion.

This is an archive piece that was migrated to this website from Diabolic Digest

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