Your brain on speed dating

Activity in two regions helps calculate compatibility with potential mates

In the fraught, emotional world of speed dating, scientific calculations don’t usually hold much sway. But the brain runs a complex series of computations to tally the allure of a prospective partner in just seconds, a new study finds. And the strength of these brain signals predicted which speed daters would go on to score a match.

The results help explain how people evaluate others — a process that happens at lightning speed, says neuroscientist Daniela Schiller of Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. “It’s a gut feeling, but here, the paper dissects it for us and tells us, ‘This is what we calculate.’”

Scientists led by Jeffrey Cooper, who conducted the work at Trinity College Dublin and Caltech, scanned the brains of single volunteers as they looked at pictures of potential dating partners. Although it’s hard to put a number on people by a photo alone, researchers made volunteers rate on a scale of 1 to 4 how much they’d like to go on a date with the person in the photograph.

In contrast to many other lab-based experiments on decision making, this exercise wasn’t just academic: Later, the participants attended three real speed-dating events loaded with many of the potential partners seen in the photos. Like a normal speed-dating scenario, volunteers’ contact information was exchanged if both of the people wanted to follow up. (Also like a typical scenario, there weren’t many love connections, says Cooper. When the scientists checked in six weeks later, only a few couples had gone on real dates.)

When the researchers looked back at the brain scans of volunteers who viewed photographs of people they would later meet, the team found that the behavior of two parts of the brain’s dorsomedial prefrontal cortex — a region near the front of the brain that sits above the eyes — could predict whether viewers would later pursue the people in real life. The work appears in the Nov. 7 Journal of Neuroscience.

One of these brain locales, the paracingulate cortex, appeared to be calculating how attractive another person was. This part of the brain “seems to be the one doing the heavy lifting in terms of sorting people you’re going to say yes to and the people you’re going to say no to,” says Cooper, who is now an analyst at the Glendale, Calif., campus of the Walt Disney Co.

Although important to speed dating success, looks weren’t everything. “There’s more going on than just how good-looking a person is,” Cooper says. The second region, a place a little closer to the eyes called the rostromedial prefrontal cortex, may be a more sophisticated matchmaker, focusing on personality instead of looks. This part of the brain appeared to appraise, in a very idiosyncratic way, how likeable a person appeared.

The rostromedial prefrontal cortex has been implicated in thinking about other people’s mental states and comparing the self with others. On the dating scene, this region might be figuring out how similar a potential partner is to the observer, a calculation that’s known to influence relationships.

The results capture what’s happening in society, says Schiller. In the digital jungle of online dating, first impressions are increasingly being made with a photo. “In the past, we went with a gut feeling,” she says. “Now in modern society, we do make these calculations, we rank and reference and give a number.”

Laura Sanders is the neuroscience writer. She holds a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of Southern California.

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