This weekend, I stumbled onto an article about how to fall in love with anyone in just thirty-six easy questions, which led me down the sort of geeky rabbit hole I find particularly enticing, so I thought I’d share some of my adventure. I’m not really certain how I wound up in the Fashion and Style section of the New York Times, reading about the night when Mandy Len Carten fell in love with a guy she was probably already at least deeply in like with (after all, he actually said to her, “I suspect, given a few commonalities, you could fall in love with anyone,” which just screams, “Hey, I totally dig you,” so they were well on their way to love, in my opinion, by the time they got around to sitting in that bar, asking each other probing questions, both willing to see what would happen next, but still it is a sweet story), however after reading her article, I found myself pondering the thirty-six questions, developed by Dr. Arthur Aron, who runs the Interpersonal Relationships Lab at SUNY Stony Brook, reading about other people’s attempts at recreating the original 1997 study, Experimental Generation of Interpersonal Closeness, and considering what this means in terms of why and how we fall in love with the imaginary people in books and movies, because that’s just the sort of nerd I am.
You might be asking yourself, as I did, whether or not thirty-six questions can actually result in a lasting relationship between perfect strangers, as the article suggests. The answer is yes and no. According to Dr. Aron, love requires a certain surrendering of the self to another person. From a scientific standpoint, in love it is as though the other person becomes a part of yourself. In fact, fMRI brain scans of test subjects in other studies have shown that mention of the name of a significant other, a parent, a sibling, a close friend, all result in the activation of similar parts of the brain as the mention of a test subject’s own name, suggesting that we hold these people we love as very near to ourselves, which should make some poets out there very happy. In real life, we become more intimate with others as their lives, needs, wants and desires become intertwined with our own. This process is sped up in the lab (or the bar, as the case may be), by way of the thirty-six questions, which progressively become more personal in nature, providing a decent framework for micro-empathizing your way to a legitimate bond with someone you’ve only just met, the only real caveat being that it does require an initial willingness in both parties to build that closeness in order to work.
If you were to walk into a McDonald’s, sit down in front of a stranger and ask, “Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?” (experiment question #1), most people would likely respond with a heartfelt, “Not you, buddy. Now get outta here before my fries get cold.” However, if you find a willing participant, someone who is not only willing to answer the questions but also willing to listen to your answers in return, these questions can and do produce results, even in perfect strangers. One pair in the original study wound up married, and the vast majority of participants in the original and subsequent studies reported feeling closer to their study partner after completing the experiment, though they didn’t all rush off to the altar, because a heck of a lot more than taking forty-five minutes to answer thirty-six questions goes into building and maintaining a lasting relationship.
Still, as I read the list of questions, considering what it would be like to sit with a stranger and ask and answer questions as innocuous as, “Do you have a secret hunch about how you will die?” (question #7) or as cringe-inducing as the fill in the blank, “I wish I had someone with whom I could share …” (#26), I couldn’t help but think that they all sounded much like plot devices in some Nicholas Sparks film:
"When's the last time you just let go and cried in front of somebody, Joey? Hell, when's the last time you let go and cried alone?" Emma smiled, turning out her feet to stand on their sides, the corner of her mouth tucking in, like she knew she was going one question too far, but by that point, she was tired and only wanted him to kiss her the way the guy kisses the girl in the movies. (Question #30) All he wanted was to bury his head against her neck and take in a deep breath of June as it washed over her skin, but he couldn't, not yet, he thought, laughing as the wind caught up in her hair, spinning it in a wild tangle of strawberries and sunlight. "Damn, Em," he answered, taking a slow step toward her. That was all he could say.
I’ve mentioned before that when we read books or watch films, we develop neurological bonds with the characters, much like those we experience in real life. This happens in an incredibly short time-frame compared to the lifetime it usually takes us to get to know, say, our own mothers or even our best friends, but the connections we make with characters in stories are just as real, producing in our brains the same chemicals that we experience when we fall in love or lose our jobs or get chased by the Mob (I assume… I’ve never actually been chased by the Mob, myself, but I hear it’s exhilarating). This is, at its heart, what makes entertainment so entertaining, and I think it’s likely the same thing that happens with Dr. Aron’s questions. It’s not the questions themselves that matter, but the willingness to ask and answer something deeper about ourselves that provides that chemical romance we all need, that fix that only comes through the discovery of the layers of that person that are hidden in the next chapter. But our lives are so busy, and we so easily get caught up in the mundane and forget that we are all books, begging to have our pages turned.