The doors were open. Beer was being served. The microphone was turned on. In Chimera Brewpub, a cozy space made of brick walls and bohemian decoration, 45 participants were starting the first Ar in a Bar event created by a group of enthusiastic science lovers. It might have seemed like an ordinary Tuesday, but the 7th of March would be a night for discussing Love and Sex in many different minds.
As a new offshoot of the Ar family, the aim of Ar in a Bar is to create a friendly atmosphere for people to have interesting discussions in small groups about many different topics. In these gatherings, the emphasis is to spend time exploring ideas – while having a beer! They are open to all, and prior knowledge of the topic or scientific training are not necessary.
So, what can we say about love and sex in the human mind? These issues are both immortal and quotidian, and have been a matter of debate in society throughout time; issues about which all of us can share our experiences, and fuel each other’s curiosity.
This is exactly what happened in this first Ar in Bar session led by five hosts, a mixed selection of men and women, scientists and non-scientists of four different nationalities, who were pleased to guide an equally diverse group of participants. They shared their knowledge and perspectives on these classical topics, as well as their personal ideas and feelings.
A pill for love and heartbreak?
At one of the discussion tables, Francisco Esteves, a post-doctoral fellow in the Champalimaud Research (CR) Neuroethology laboratory, challenged us with the question: “If there were pills you could take to cure heartbreak and/or enhance love feelings within a long-term committed relationship, would you take them?” This was not an easy question to answer. On the one hand, those who said no interpreted taking the pills as an artificial way of living, with inherent dangers of getting addicted, losing the potential for learning or even devaluing the process of falling in love. On the other hand, those who supported taking pills felt that it depends on balancing what is most important for each relationship. It can be positive if pain can be avoided by taking said pills; taking these should also be no different from taking a paracetamol for pain or a glass of wine to relax, others argued.
The evolutionary basis of sex and love
Even though love and sex represent separated scenarios, Marta Iglesias, a PhD student in the CR Collective Behaviour laboratory, focused on what links the two: desire. She presented sex as a biological imperative that makes us search for the best partner. This phenomenon has a chemical base, even if the experience of love may seem more like a ‘soul feeling’. “Is the first love also attraction?” “Is indeed love, an attraction?” Some people claimed that love doesn’t have to be just about rational ideas. It is also important to let your partner know how crazy you are about having good sex. Moreover, other participants in the discussion stated that sex is a complement of love and vice versa. At this table, the discussion also covered how monogamy or polygamy made sense from an evolutionary perspective, and what could be the different social and selective pressures driving them.
Ar in a bar – debating ideas. Photo credit: Francisco Romero
Fear and politics in love and sexuality
Two other tables featured hosts from Tamera, an international community in Alentejo. In Tamera, love and sex are viewed very differently than in the wider society. Because of this experience, Martin and Dara asked what role culture and politics play when talking about relationships, and how we could approach them with less fear.
The main ideas that came up were that changing the mindset would require trust and openness in relationships, but might only be possible in small communities, because currently, in our modern societies, we lack the close connections to people that we used to have.
How do we chose who to have sex with?
From the neuroscience perspective, female mate-choice is an important mechanism of natural/sexual selection. Internal state, social information and interactions, as well as experience and context are some of the processes that modulate this decision, influencing preference towards sexually relevant stimuli, and therefore partners.
Thus, Luis Moreira, a PhD student in the Champalimaud Research Neuroethology laboratory, started a discussion on his table about how these preferences could be guided by simple traits, like body odors, as opposed to complex information that requires more experience, such as psychological and behavioral characteristics. These preferences can be influenced by culture and genetics, and they can widely vary across the choosing population.
As a final note, life history and the transformations that occur from juvenile to adult age were recognized as key in shaping preferences for a partner, with a special emphasis on the partner’s desire, or not, to have progeny.
Ar in a bar @ Chimera Brewpub. Photo credit: Francisco Romero
After an hour of intense debate, in which people rotated between the five tables exchanging and debating the ideas here presented, the audience had a brief synopsis of the various enquires made by the hosts. Often, to our surprise, we are not aware of how powerful communication can be in such a tiny get-together; this gathering proved that this format can help us heal some of our deepest doubts and make us understand different points of view that perhaps we never considered before.
The Ar in a Bar experience seems to offer a unique possibility to talk about ordinary topics with a scientific approach and exchange real thoughts. For us, it is beautiful to see how we can be transformed by learning from strangers. This Ar initiative of periodic gatherings is looking forward to stimulating our audiences and nurturing a diverse community interested in discussing, challenging, defending, and sharing scientific-based issues.
We, the Ar collective, are looking forward to sharing the science perspective about anything that engages our journey throughout these lives we are living in, with all our future audiences . On this particular occasion, our feelings of love, sexual desire, and emotional thoughts were the main players. This is just the beginning of a series of easy-going nights in which people and science can openly and freely engage with each other.
Irene Argudo works as a PhD student in the Cell Fitness lab at the Champalimaud Center for the Unknown
Edited by: Ivo Marcelo (Section Editor), Clara Ferreira (Editor).