I joined OKCupid upon moving to San Francisco. I was not looking for love so much as friends. Okay, perhaps less than friends—anything to interrupt the anonymity and displacement that was exciting in small doses and crushing at large. Despite the cultural cynicism and a few spectacularly boring dates, there is something to be said for online dating. Each person agrees to give their time to a stranger, to make a small allowance for chance. I approached these dates in a low-stakes way: banking on an interesting conversation, a knowing glance, at the very least, a shared walk or meal with someone new. I wasn’t looking for my other half, which allowed me to be emotionally generous with strangers. Many commented on my warmth, my vulnerability, my authenticity. Those were the words they used. Why wouldn’t I try to know you? You are here. I am here. Let’s try to know one another.
Offline dating is another story. When strangers approach me in bars, I am guarded. I scan for trespasses big and small. Sometimes I give a fake name, they roll off the tongue with ease: Ava, Alice, Emma. Why do the playing fields feel so different? The missing variable I can see is deliberateness. I think I’m scared of people wanting something from me I’m not ready to give.
In most species, courtship attraction lasts for minutes, hours, or weeks if their intentions are pure. In humans, the intense early stage of romantic love can last 12–18 months. Note that I said courtship, not sex. Though there is some overlap, it is suggested that our sex drive encourages us to copulate with a range of partners, while the romantic brain allows us to focus mating energy on specific partners, conserving time and energy. Lastly, partner attachment (ostensibly the happily-ever-after bit) motivates mates to stick together just long enough to raise their young. Recent research suggests the “seven year itch” is closer to four years.
Love can be something of a neurochemical blindfold. We assess potential mates in ways we are utterly unaware of. In Incognito, Dr. David Eagleman refers to a study in which men responded more favorably to images of women whose pupils were dilated by two millimeters, an indicator of sexual readiness. This was an unconscious cue on their part and a pro tip for your next profile pic. Semir Zeki, neurobiologist at University College London, wrote that romantic and maternal attachment overcome social distance by deactivating regions associated with negative emotions, social judgment, and assessing the intentions and emotions of others—while encouraging pair-bonding in an intricate, addictive system of reward. You think you’re falling for a tall brunette who dances like nobody’s watching, but it’s really your Oxytocin and Vasopressin receptors. In fact, the serotonin receptors of a brain in love appear similar to those of someone with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.
Despite the tour of our neural circuitry, I don’t necessarily see love as less real. Love has profound genetic consequences. If the hardware is there, in the supercomputer of our skulls, then we are made for love.
I once went on a date with a man named Xander. We ate Vietnamese food and hiked the Presidio to visit site-specific art by Andy Goldsworthy. It was a little too cold but I enjoyed his company (he was good at silence and smart in very different ways than I was) enough to look for signs of sexual interest. I found none. So, we walked for hours. I liked being alone in the fog with him. He knew the scientific names of the insects and plants we saw. At one point, we both had to relieve ourselves in respective bushes. Upon emerging, we found that we’d pissed on the oldest footpath in the park, Lovers’ Lane.
Let’s try to know one another.
Part 1 of 3 feature installments in the Nerve series IT’S A MATCH: Exploring peril and grace in online dating.