Experiment or experience? When writer Charles Montgomery asked me to help him create “Love Night” (that audacious name!) at the BMW Guggenheim Lab in New York City, I eagerly agreed. Could I design a set of activities that would catalyze New Yorkers to rapidly form connections with a bunch of people they didn’t know? Several other academics also contributed activities for Love Night, and they wanted to collect data on people’s reactions to them. I’m a scientist, and I love to collect data, especially unusual data that is nearly impossible to replicate. But I had to decide if I was designing an experiment or an experience.
After some thought, I decided I wanted to design an experience and forget the data. It was already a serious challenge to use everything I knew about the molecule of connection, oxytocin, to design activities that would cause attendees’ brains to produce oxytocin and, hopefully, compel them to connect to others. If I could do this, then the feeling of connection and, yes, love, would flow.
When I design experiments to measure brain activity, I typically use “strong” stimuli, factors that will have a powerful effect on the brain, making the measurement of effects easier. The activity that I thought would have the strongest effect at Love Night was hugs. I had shown in my lab that touch releases oxytocin and makes people feel close to each other. I had earned the nickname “Dr. Love” because I put my research into practice by hugging everyone. The fabulously inventive professor Sabine Seymour from the Parsons School of Design at the New School designed T-shirts with thermochromic ink that changed color with touch. We gave away 60 of these shirts to randomly chosen attendees to be “hug ambassadors.”
The other experiences at Love Night allowed people to open up to others (share a warm drink, share a close space, share hopes and fears), but hugs are so simple, so human, I thought hugs would be people’s favorite thing to do. When Love Night started I had five minutes to introduce the science behind the activities. On the center dais, I told attendees that my lab had found about a dozen types of social interactions that cause the brain to release oxytocin. And that when the brain is flooded with oxytocin, we feel empathy for others and a connection to them. Then, I showed how the T-shirts worked by inviting the closest person to me, a thirtyish guy with a scruffy beard, to come up to the dais so I could show all the “hug ambassadors” how to hug a stranger. I suggested introducing oneself first and offering a hug. I also cautioned against “creepy hugs.”
The hugs killed. The 500 New Yorkers who showed up all began talking and hugging each other. It’s just hard not to be nice to someone who has hugged you. Indeed, there was so much hugging and people were so happy in this love-rich environment that it tainted the data from the other activities. Everyone felt connected and, yes, loved, in the middle of New York City.
We are social. Love Night was meant to demonstrate that fact to New Yorkers in a visceral, experiential way. I saw people transformed by the care and connection, the smiles and warm conversations. And I was transformed, too.
I’m an uber-nerd but Love Night convinced me to embrace my “Dr. Love” persona. If hugs and love are truly transformative, Love Night convinced me that I can take off my scientist hat and simply connect to others at events without collecting data. A month after Love Night, I was interviewed at a business forum and introduced the science of connection and then hugged the host. Hugging spontaneously erupted in the audience and the happiness was palpable. It was an experience.
Images from Love Night: Matt Stanton © 2011 Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation
Lab Notes I is an eight-week series focusing on trends that emerged from the BMW Guggenheim Lab New York. Curators Maria Nicanor and David van der Leer, blogger Christine McLaren, and a prominent group of guest contributors will explore the forces and transformations shaping the future of cities. The series will focus on four successive trends; the second is the Need to Promote Emotional Cityness.