Love at first sight? Fringe experiment invites strangers to find out

    Philadelphia artists Danielle Gatto and Makoto Hirano are shown at WHYY studios. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

    Philadelphia artists Danielle Gatto and Makoto Hirano are shown at WHYY studios. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

    A social experiment during this week’s Fringe Festival, in the City of Brotherly Love no less, has a rather ambitious goal: to help strangers fall in love.

    OK, not exactly.

    But the “four-minute booth” is inspired by key a part of the experiment of Dr. Arthur Aron, a psychologist who famously  tried to accelerate intimacy between strangers by having them answer a series of questions and then stare silently into one another’s eyes. It wasn’t his intention, but two of his participants fell in love.

    After reading about the experiments in a popular Modern Love column, Philadelphia artists Danielle Gatto and her partner, Makoto Hirano, had an idea.

    “You can’t just do this in your normal life,” said Gatto. “You can’t just sit there and stare at someone in your normal life, especially a stranger. That would be crazy.”

    Enter their four-minute booth.

    The premise is simple. Unacquainted participants sit across from one another in a private booth. They then stare into each other’s eyes, silently and without interruption, for four minutes.

    Gatto and Hirano stress that while the booth is loosely based on research that a mutual gaze can increase empathy and even the pleasurable oxytocin hormone in the brain, it isn’t meant as a romantic prompt.

    “We’re not scientists,” said Hirano, who is also co-founder of the performance group Team Sunshine. “We’re inspired by science, and we want to create a space for people to be able to connect.”

    The two tried the booth out for the first time at Fringe last year. Several dozen people took part. Gatto said one surprise was that when many of the participants left the booth after that four minutes, they’d run to each other and hug.

    The booth will be up Monday, Friday and Saturday from 8 to 11 p.m. this week at FringeArts’ Haas Biergarten.

    Learn more about the science of the mutual gaze later this week on The Pulse.

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