We know flirting can lead to all kinds of things, but most of us don’t know how it works. So I asked some brain experts what the heck’s going on — here’s what they had to say.
“Our brains respond in a very complex way to both pleasant and unpleasant [flirting] experiences by ‘firing’ and ‘releasing’ neurotransmitters and then deciding how to react,” says Shadi Farhangrazi, biochemist, neuroscientist and founder of Biotrends International™ in Denver, CO. According to Dr. Farhangrazi, PET scans of the brain show “activity in the amygdala (which is responsible for regulating emotions), nucleus accumbens (which controls the release of dopamine), the ventral tegmental area (which actually releases that dopamine) as well as the cerebellum, which controls muscle reaction — and, as a result, the response to fear, unpleasantness or happiness. In addition, the hippocampus, prefrontal cortex, and pituitary gland (which releases beta-endorphins) and the insula — which is a small region of cortex beneath the temporal lobes — also appear to show activity.”
In other words, when it comes to matters of the heart, it’s all in your head.
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The brain’s reward system lights up when we’re flattered by someone
When we first see someone, our brain goes to work evaluating that person, checking items off our must-have list and indexing past experiences. “That’s the cortex sizing up this person as a suitable partner,” explains Dr. Helen Fisher, author of Why Him? Why Her?: How to Find and Keep Lasting Love, research professor of anthropology at Rutgers University and Chief Scientific Advisor to Chemistry.com. Then, emotions and feelings kick in.
“When we are attracted to someone or feel ‘love-like’ feelings toward [that person], neural activity is restricted to foci in the medial insula, the anterior cingulate cortex, the head of the caudate nucleus and the putamen,” explains Jennifer Johnston-Jones, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Pacific Palisades, CA. “In other words, we lose focus on everything else and put all of our attention on the person we are attracted to.”
That hyper-focus drives us to begin flirting or become open to receiving flirtation from another person. “As we’re beginning to feel attracted, it’s my educated guess that the reward system of the brain is beginning to crank up,” Dr. Fisher adds. That reward system is run by dopamine, and it’s the brain system for goal-oriented behavior, motivation, wanting, etc. “[It] begins to help you focus your energy on this person. That’s when you decide to start flirting,” Dr. Fisher explains. “The same system works when someone who appeals to you starts flirting, but with different responses. You allow the other person to ‘move in.”
When a pass feels unwelcome, dopamine production grinds to a halt
And what about when nature says “Do not touch” instead — like when we get that yucky feeling inside because someone we’re not attracted to starts flirting with us?
“When there is a ‘bad feeling’ or intuition telling us that we are uncomfortable with this person, that is…associated with a lack of dopamine in the brain,” Dr. Johnston-Jones says. “Often, from a psychological as well as an evolutionary perspective, this ‘bad feeling’ has a strong basis in reality.” In other words, there’s something about an individual’s behavior that turns us off or reminds us of an unpleasant person or experience. “If we are uncomfortable with this person from the start, more likely than not, the neurological bond of attachment will not develop, and there is no possible healthy long-term relationship,” asserts Dr. Johnston-Jones. “All humans need this bond of attachment in order to feel secure in their relationship.”
Your brain’s role in the flirting process
Flirting is a good “early indicator” of compatibility, but you can’t tell for sure if someone’s right for you without getting more information first. “The brain has millions of forces registering at the same time — many feelings, motivations and cognitive processes are constantly chiming in,” Dr. Fisher explains. “With all the new information, we continue to calibrate and to analyze [in order] to see if this person is really right for us. In the beginning of a relationship, you know very little about your date, so you over-weigh the little that you do know. The thing to do next is to get to know the person more.”
Margot Carmichael Lester is a freelance content producer whose work also appears on Monster.com and in International Cinematographers Guild magazine.