Love Flicks Your Brain’s Commitment Switch

Erman Misirlisoy, PhD
6 min readJan 17, 2019
Photo by Evan Kirby on Unsplash

Love is a smoke raised with the fume of sighs

— William Shakespeare

Romantic love is a powerful social force, but you don’t need me to tell you that. Many of our most dramatic memories are likely to come from interactions with people we adore. When we profess our love but the feeling isn’t reciprocated, it can leave us feeling lonely, embarrassed, and even depressed. When love is requited, it is almost the mirror image: elation, motivation, and boosted self-worth. These experiences have inspired some of the greatest literature and most popular entertainment in history, from Shakespearean tragedies to Witherspoonian romantic comedies. How do we fall in love in the first place, and why is it so breathtaking?

Let’s start in the brain. Are there any patterns of brain activity that predict whether we will like someone when we meet them? Researchers tested this question by putting participants in a brain scanner and analyzing their brain activity while they looked at photographs of prospective romantic partners. After the brain scanning, participants actually got to meet the people from the photographs at a speed-dating event. This gave the researchers a great opportunity to examine whether the brain activity they measured in response to the photographs predicted decision-making during dating.

The researchers identified two areas of the brain that were active while participants weighed up the photos, and that predicted their later choices. The first was the paracingulate cortex — an area on the medial surface of the brain — which coded for judgments of physical attractiveness. Beauty judgments were fairly consistent across participants. The second relevant brain area was the rostromedial prefrontal cortex — another more frontal medial area — which instead coded for judgments about perceived personality and likability, preferences that varied between participants.

The medial frontal surface of our brain therefore computes several bits of information about people who could become future romantic partners, including general information that we all tend to agree on, and information that is more specific to our personal preferences. Love at first sight may depend on the levels of activity in your paracingulate and…

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Erman Misirlisoy, PhD

Research Leader (Ex-Instagram / Chief Scientist at multiple startups). Author of the User Insight Newsletter: https://userinsight.substack.com/