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Love in the Time of Tech: Your Brain on Dating Apps

Dating apps often leave us focusing on other parts of the body, but what happens to our brains when we swipe left or right on a potential mate? We dive deep into the science of dating in our modern age, exploring why we date online—and why it’s seriously addictive.

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National Geographic Channel’s “Brain Games” takes viewers inside the workings of the mind, with fascinating experiments and interactive games designed to unlock the mysteries of our brains. Host Jason Silva gets help from neuroscientists and cognitive experts in his quest to help us all better understand, well, us. In this piece, we take the spirit of “Brain Games” to the world of internet dating, to find out what happens to our brains when we use dating apps and other tools of modern romance.

Love in the Time of Tech

Those among us who are, let’s say, less than technologically savvy, are often appalled by the current dating scene. Based on our potential lovers’ looks alone, we either swipe left or right in split-second decisions. We create online profiles, curating our favorite traits and launching “ideal selves” out into an infinite sea of potentiality that has become the online dating pool. Complex algorithms bypass human volition and match us based on statistical likelihoods, on whether you like scary movies or find smoking cigarettes repulsive.

Indeed, there is much to loathe here. But those of you who long for the good ol’ days of serendipity, of bumping into your soulmate in the grocery line, simply have to get with the times—or so the leading scientists say.

“The technology of dating is suiting the times,” biological anthropologist Dr. Helen Fisher says, in an interview with The Daily Beast. Fisher studies the oldest, most atavistic of human drives, right next to thirst and hunger—though a bit more complex. Her studies, and those of her colleagues, are based on imaging the brains of people who are in love or seeking love.

What is Love? Baby, It’s Dopamine… Sort of

Once the domain for poets and philosophers, love has become subject of the neuroscientist. Though imaging studies demonstrate love as a complex neurochemical cocktail, the “true nature” of love still retains enigma.

Our brain has a reward system, which “becomes activated when you fall madly in love,” says Fisher. What she calls the “wanting system” is a collection of structures that respond to stimuli that in turn alter our behaviors, prompting us to seek out more reward, more connection, more love. Like drug users who crave a fix, so do lovers crave their partner, and even feel withdrawal when they’re not around. This is why missing someone hurts. A romantic partner, a kiss, or any rewarding object, will kick this wanting system into high gear.

As Fisher and her colleagues write in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, “Increased levels of central dopamine contribute to the lover’s focused attention on the beloved and the lover’s tendency to regard the beloved as unique.” A factory deep within the midbrain called the ventral tegmental area (VTA) is a critical region said to be origin of dopaminergic cell bodies. It activates when we inject heroin, have an orgasm, and of course, when we love someone.

Everyone’s heard of dopamine. That’s why neuroscientist Vaughn Bell once called it the Kim Kardashian of neurotransmitters, “… an excuse to drop some booty on the science pages,” he wrote. While the role of dopamine in our complex brain’s functions may be overstated in pop culture’s understanding of neurological science, it does play a role in, among other things, romantic love.

A study by James Burkett and Larry Young titled “The Behavioral, Anatomical and Pharmacological Parallels Between Social Attachment, Love, and Addiction,” reveals the significance of dopamine in mammalian pair bonding:When the researchers blocked dopamine receptors in the nucleus accumbens (NA) of prairie voles (small monogamous rodents), the animals did not pair up together and mate. In contrast, when dopamine in the NA was activated, the voles enacted pair bonding even if no actual mating occurred. While this experiment demonstrates the role of dopamine in partnering, human beings remain far more complex than rodents bred in a lab for the sole purpose of mating.

Your Brain When You Swipe

In our everyday lives, we make split second decisions based on very little information. Of course, this is how millions of seekers engage with dating apps such as Tinder and OKCupid’s Quickmatches. A 2012 study published in the Journal of Neuroscience may help us understand what’s going on in the brain when we decide to swipe a certain way; that is to say, if we’re interested or disinterested in a future connection with any given person.

While undergoing brain imaging, participants in the study were shown a photo of a person and then given 4 seconds to respond to the question: “How much would you like to date this person?” The results found two main brain areas to be predictive of whether an individual would be pursued or rejected.

One area was the dorsal medial prefrontal cortex, a region implicated in planning complex cognitive behavior, personality expression, and other social behaviors. The other area that was predictive was the paracingulate cortex, located in the medial prefrontal cortex of the human brain.

“The brain is trying to do two things,” said Fisher, with regard to rapid evaluations of potential mates. “[We’re] trying to assess a) whether the person fits into our lovemap, and b) whether the person is sexually attractive.”

One’s “lovemap” is a concept coined by sexologist John Money. He wrote that the lovemap is “a developmental representation or template in the mind and in the brain depicting the idealized lover.”

The imaging study concluded that even a quick glance can accurately predict romantic desire, but that glance involves a complex mix of physical and psychological judgements that depend on activity in the two brain regions observed.

Gamification of Dating: Warning, May Be Addictive

Natasha Dow Schüll is a cultural anthropologist at NYU and author of “Addiction by Design,” where she explores how technology—slot machines, for instance—has the potential to trap us in an addictive system of rewards. Schüll says there are indeed parallels between slot machines and gamified dating apps like Tinder.

“The parallels are in the way experience is formatted, delivering or not delivering rewards. If you don’t know what you’re going to get and when, then that brings about the most perseverating kinds of behavior, which are really the most addictive.”

“You build up this anticipation,” she explains, “that anticipation grows and there is a kind of release of sorts when you get a reward: a jackpot, a ding-ding-ding, a match.”

Is it really sex or the sensation of winning some kind of jackpot that we’re after? “Those things certainly motivate you in the first place to go to a casino or go on a dating site,” Schüll says, “but what you learn from interacting with it, is it’s a rabbit hole of sorts, a rabbit hole out of the self.”

Alicia Eler and Eve Peyser are frequent contributors to The New Inquiry, where they write critical essays exploring online dating. In an interview with The Daily Beast, Peyser explained her personal experience with life “Tinderized.”

“There’s so much time I’ve spent on Tinder just because I wanted to connect from the safety of my own room or bed, from being behind my screen. I wanted to connect with someone without actually connecting.” she says.

“Tinder creates a binary,” Peyser explains, “someone is either left or they’re right, they’re no or they’re yes. And if all you need for a romantic partnership is the release of dopamine, that is either a yes or no—so this binary is a huge problem.” Life is too complicated, never either/or. Tinder nullifies any maybe, says Peyser.

Peyser’s experience coincides with much of Schüll’s research. “They’re playing on these very human ways of being-in-the-world,” says Schüll, “kind of intensifying and accelerating the speed of it—it’s so fast.” Peyser says it’s like her thumbs were made to swipe.

Schüll argues a neuroscientific account is not necessary, because behavior is readily observable—in other words, our actions on these dating apps give enough of an answer to these questions, without the need for brain imaging or other, more intensive techniques. But wherever there is deep learning, such as the interaction with Tinder or a slot machine, our brains are functionally changing. It’s a plastic organ, always on the ready to adapt. Only time will tell whether Peyser and Eler’s theory pans out, that one can become enclosed in the binaries provided by Tinder.

Until then, we’re the same old mammals with same old brains, wanting and craving connection.

New season of Brain Games premieres Sunday, February 14th at 9/8c on the National Geographic Channel.