Love on the brain

Last update: September 11, 2022
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Reading time: 2 minutes
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By BrainMatters

When talking about new impressions, a topic that cannot be left undiscussed is love. What happens in our brain when we see a potential partner for the first time?

Head, shoulders, knees and toes, knees and toes.
Let me set the scene: You’re walking on the street, suddenly you see someone who catches your attention… What are we actually looking at, and what indication can this give? A study investigating eye-movements reveals that we are more likely to look at someone’s head and chest when we are assessing whether they could be a potential partner or not. More eye-movement in those areas indicates a greater interest in the person as a partner. On the other hand, we look more at someone’s legs and feet when we are thinking about whether someone could become a good friend. In this case, more eye-movement in the feet and leg areas indicates a greater interest in forming friendship with this person. So, the next time you see someone staring at your legs and feet for a long time, you know to recognize this sign and make a friend! Jokes aside, it's all about a small change in ratio of where we gaze, but I think it’s rather interesting to know about this distinction.

Do first impressions matter for the long-term potential of relationships?
We’re now at the next stage, a fresh love has just started. But how do we know whether it will last? Perhaps we can gain insight from brain activity… A study investigated fMRI brain activation at early-stage love and after 40 months. And what do you know, there was a difference in initial brain activation between those who were still together after 40 months and those who weren’t. While the data from this study is just a first indicator, it appears that an increase in activity in the frontal lobe (involved in reward functions among other things) serves as a predictor for how strong a relationship is and whether it will last. Thus, when the forebrain of your newfound partner shows reduced activity, perhaps it’s better to jump ship!

How does our brain compute whether we are interested in someone as a potential partner or not?
So, from the previous parts we learned about the role of eye-movements in first impressions and that brain activity of the forebrain can be indicative of the potential of a new relationship. But what happens in our brain when we see someone, where do we compute whether we like them or not? According to the neural common currency hypothesis, the brain areas related to making choices are the same, irrespective of the kind of choice. Thus, when we are making choices about whether to date someone, or whether to buy a new phone, the same neural network plays a role. fMRI data supports this hypothesis, and points to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and the orbitofrontal cortex as key areas for weighing almost any reward values.

Author: Kobus Lampe

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