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The science of dating: Pretty women, personal space, and gorillas


To take a break from the well-worn rituals of dating (and turning them down), I’d like to present some bits of information that may be of use in your dating days. In the past week, the conclusions of three scientific studies were picked up by Time, NewScientist and The Telegraph (UK). Why am I bringing this up? All three studies relate to dating and mating, from monogamy to the perception of personal space.

Sex as a Distraction
Many primates engage in sexual activities for a variety of reasons, including Bonobos (and some humans) humping to say “Hello!” The American Journal of Primatology released a study in July in which researchers set out to discern a correlation between “nonconceptive mating” in gorillas and the evolution of sexual monogamy in human relationships. A team led by Diane Dorhan-Sheehy spent over one thousand days between September 2003 and January 2007 recording most copulations and all births for that took place within a group of gorillas at The Mondika Research Centre. These males tend to have a following of females to themselves, with little male aggression over territory or mating rights, and one of these groups was the focus of Dorhan-Sheehy’s observations.

Lo and behold, the team observed that high-ranking females favored by the male would continue to be available for mating, timing their availability as others females were reaching their fertile peaks, even if the high-ranking female herself was unable to conceive at the time. As written in the abstract: “Therefore, PC [post-conceptive] mating appears to be a strategy by which high-ranking pregnant females attempt to minimize male interest in other females, while reinforcing their own status… These findings indicate that female-mating competition is more important than considered earlier, and may be a factor in the evolution of nonconceptive mating in humans.” If only we could speak with the males and ask them how they qualify each female. Could it be possible that sexual availability has something to do with the favoritism?

Too Close for Comfort
In a study published in Nature Neuroscience, scientists at CalTech compared the personal bubble of a subject with scarred amygdalae (the area of the brain that processes emotion) to subjects with healthy amygdalae, to find that the main subject experienced unease at about half the space-rate of the comparison subjects. Other studies of the main subject have shown that she also has problems assessing a person’s trustworthiness, and it is thought that people who deal with severe shyness have an issue with their temporal lobes as well.

Keep these things in mind while mingling. As the Time article points out: “In short, [the study] suggests that we are wired to repel close human contact — except, of course, when sex is a possibility. Which explains why so many introductions in bars go wrong. .. (Past research has shown that the brain's limbic system, which includes the amygdalae, lights up in response to sexually arousing stimuli — not surprisingly, more vigorously in men than in women.)”

Brain Flirts
Ladies, if you’re getting frustrated because every man you meet makes a bad first impression or appears dumber than a box of rocks, there’s a reason for that: You are too beautiful for words. Psychologists at Radboud University in The Netherlands were prompted to study brain function of men after mixed-gender interactions because one of them appeared to have lost memory of his address while speaking with an attractive woman. The study published in The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, showed that there’s some crossed wiring in the brains of the study subjects, though many people can surely relate to this. When a man tries to make a positive impression, he actually achieves the opposite, presumably because his brain is so focused on the idea of the impression, and not what he’s actually doing.

Shy women don’t have the same excuse, as the study showed no effect whatsoever on women’s results of the same memory test that was administered to the men. So guys, don’t despair if you don’t make your date tongue-tied. Women are generally known to look for positive traits other than looks, such as humor and kindness, which might not be discerned simply from a glance at a face. Though I have heard that “kind eyes” increase a man’s ranking of desirability. I wonder what the gorillas would say to that.

Next time: We return to the dating disasters.