Do you believe in love at first sight? How do you know when you’re attracted to a new face? A brain region known as your medial prefrontal cortex plays a major role in romantic decision-making. A new study from Ireland reveals that parts of this brain region which sits near the front of the brain, makes a snap judgment about physical attraction and whether the person is Mr. or Ms. Right, and all within milliseconds of seeing a new face. Research is the first to use real-world dating to examine how the brain makes fast romantic judgments.
Researchers recruited 78 women and 73 men, all heterosexual and single, from Trinity College Dublin to participate in a speed-dating event. After a meet and greet of 5 minutes, they filled out forms indicating whom they’d like to see again. Prior to this event, 39 participants had their brains imaged. The volunteers’ brain activity was recorded as they saw pictures of the people they’d soon meet at the event. They then had a few seconds to rate, on a scale of 1 to 4, how much they would like to date that person and their physical attraction to each person.
They then met face-to-face with the people in the pictures. People turned out to be pretty good at knowing who interested them based on the photographs alone. Researchers found that 63% of the time, their initial photograph-based interest was backed up by their real decision after their five-minute speed date. Some exchanged phone numbers and between 10% and 20% ended up getting in touch with each other.
Link between brain and dating decisions
Researchers found a link between one specific region of the medial prefrontal cortex, called the paracingulate cortex, and people’s ultimate decisions about dating. The ventromedial prefrontal cortex became especially active when participants looked at faces they thought were attractive, but this region was most active when looking at faces that most people agreed were “hot”. Those that saw a face that tripped their trigger but didn’t get great ratings from others, a different region activated: the rostromedial prefrontal cortex, a segment of the medial prefrontal cortex located lower in the brain. That region in this “moment” may be doing something like evaluating not just “is this person a good catch?” but “is this person a good catch for me?”
Two ways to look at the results that were published in the Nov. 7 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience, is that we’re pretty shallow. In the first few milliseconds of seeing a new face, we’re evaluating physical attractiveness. The rostromedial prefrontal cortex goes a bit deeper, very quickly asking, “Yeah, but are they compatible with me?”
They are separate processes by both happening in your head as you make those initial evaluations. Give your dating some time and don’t go only by the physical aspects of the possible mates you meet. Don’t be shallow!