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What happens in the brain when we swipe right?

by Christine Yu

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Take a look around at today’s movies, books, music, and television and the message is pretty clear: dating is rough. In fact, the chick flick and chick lit genres are built around the foibles of the modern dating world and the (sometimes frustrating) search for love. Does anyone actually like dating?

The answer is yes, at least according to Match’s latest Singles in America survey. In their survey of more than 5,000 Americans (not just Match users), approximately one in six say they enjoy the process of finding a love connection so much that they say they’re addicted to it. Men are 97 percent more likely to long for the chase whereas women are 54 percent more likely to feel burned out by the process. And millennials are 125 percent more likely to feel this craving compared to other generations.

“When you think about it, finding your life partner is the most important thing we do as a human being, from a Darwinian perspective,” says Dr. Helen Fisher, senior research fellow at the Kinsey Institute and chief scientific advisor for Match. “Dating is the highway to romance then attachment then reproduction”—your chance to get your genes into the next generation.

In other words, your brain may be hardwired to find a mate—it’s a primal drive. In her research, Fisher studied the brains of people who are madly in love using brain-imaging technology such as fMRI. The region at the base of the brain is active in participants who report being madly in love, particularly the Ventral Tegmental Area or VTA. “The VTA is part of your brain’s reward system and makes dopamine, a neurotransmitter that gives you energy, focus, craving, and alertness,” she says. That energy and focus (and craving) can help in finding a mate. Dopamine is also involved with primal needs such as hunger, thirst, and sex.

When this reward pathway is activated, the brain remembers a pleasurable experience and is motivated to seek it out again. (The same region is also active when you feel a rush from drugs like cocaine.) In addition, “emotions like love and warmth also reduce levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, and elevate levels of oxytocin, a bonding hormone,” says Dr. David Greenfield, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry, University of Connecticut School of Medicine and founder of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction. So, if you have a positive dating experience or dig the thrill of the chase (or are a millennial), you’ll likely feel the drive to date.

While Greenfield hasn’t treated anyone who is clinically addicted to dating per se, he agrees that modern dating technology and apps can heighten the chemical reactions in the brain and keep us coming back for more. According to the Singles in America study, 53 percent of single people have created a dating profile. “They are like giant slot machines,” says Greenfield.

Take Tinder for example. Just like you may believe your odds of winning big increases the longer you play the slots or with each additional roll of the dice at the craps table, the same goes for dating. Every once in awhile you may be rewarded with a little nibble and a hit of dopamine. So, you swipe and swipe, hoping you’ll hit the partner jackpot this time around.

“You never know when someone will respond or who will respond, so you’re compelled to actually open that email or that app to see what you’ve got,” says Greenfield. The anticipation of a potential prize also releases a flood of dopamine in our brains. According to Greenfield, this powerful neurotransmitter rises twice as much in anticipation of a reward compared to actually opening a message or being matched with someone on a dating site. Plus, these dating tools also make it seem like there’s an endless supply of potential matches, which may not be great news if you’re an optimizer. You may feel compelled to keep searching to find an even-more perfect match.

“Dating is neurobiology,” says Greenfield. “It would make sense that nature would design us to have an anticipatory desire to mate.” But, if you do find that you’re going out with a different person every night, Fisher says it may be good to step back for a moment. “I don’t think they are going to reach their goal [of finding a mate] and I think they are going to become exhausted,” she says. [Editor’s Note: Patience pack anyone?]


Artwork by CHRIS MARKLAND

Christine Yu

Christine Yu is a freelance writer based in New York City. She’s written about health, wellness and lifestyle for publications including The Washington Post, Runner’s World, Women’s Health and Redbook. Find her on Twitter @cyu888.

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