What Happens In Your Brain When You Get A Match On A Dating App
Your cheeks flush, you get a knot of excitement in your stomach: you've swiped right on somebody, and you get that little pop-up saying they've swiped right on you. While the technology of dating apps may be extremely new, what happens in your brain when you get a match is in fact pretty hard-wired within us since the earliest days of our being human. Experts tell Bustle that the clue to your responses to dating app acceptance is embedded in some very old brain pathways — and that they can also explain why the feeling isn't as satisfying as it could be.
If you've ever felt as if your responses to dating app matches aren't strictly logical, you're not imagining things. "When you go on dating apps, you're playing with very primitive structures that aren't rational," Dr. David Greenfield, the founder and medical director of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction, and an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine, tells Bustle. "This is why people will sit and do it over and over again; it's not about the rational desire to be in a relationship." Instead, dating apps involve areas of the brain that make them into a kind of sport, bringing us back over and over again. Here's what happens in your brain when somebody swipes right on you.
Your Dopamine Pathways Activate
The major part of the brain that activates when you receive that first message (or Bumble notification, or some other indication of interest) is the reward system. It's a connected network of areas that are all involved in dopamine pathways, or paths for the neurotransmitter dopamine that traverse the brain's neurons. A dating app match will produce a dopamine "spike"; in other words, it will activate the dopamine pathways and produce a feeling of reward and happiness. However, those dopamine spikes appear in two ways.
"Dating apps are just big slot machines," Dr. Greenfield tells Bustle. "When you go on a dating app and send out a bunch of things, or you put up a listing and check to see what fish have ended up in your net, two things might happen. First you have an anticipation of the possibility of something occurring, and that anticipated reward elevates dopamine by 100%. In other words, it's double the reward. When you actually check it and there's somebody of interest to you, you'll get another secondary hit of dopamine." The overall dopamine hit can be overwhelming and provide a serious rush of happiness.
Very Ancient Areas Of Your Brain Are Involved
The dopamine hits of dating app matches involve extremely old areas of your brain that have been present for a very long time. "You're playing with very primitive neurobiologically wired circuits," Dr. Greenfield tells Bustle. "There are two primitive circuits that have to do with pleasure in the limbic system of the brain: one has to do with sex and procreation, and one has to do with food. This is what originated those reward circuits in the brain, particularly the nucleus accumbens. When you use dating apps, you're piggybacking on these original survival pathways that were designed millions of years ago in the limbic systems of mammals."
Originally these brain systems were meant to help humans survive the wilderness; now they activate when we get that precious notification from a dating app. Studies have shown that the nucleus accumbens is activated when we look at attractive faces, for example — because it's programmed to respond to potential sexual rewards.
You Can Enter A Dopamine Loop
Nathalie Nahai, author of Webs of Influence and an expert in the psychology of online behavior, tells Bustle that the design of the rewards of dating apps also affects how your brain reacts. "Unpredictable reward, known as a variable ratio of reinforcement, where we don't know what a reward will be or when it will come, typifies a lot of our dating interactions on apps," she tells Bustle. "On dating apps, we show a pattern of behavior in which we try to get as many of these rewards as possible. This is known as a dopamine loop. It's a sense of reward and seeking out more of the same to get an arousal hit."
Dr. Greenfield agrees. "When what you're looking for is unpredictable, it creates a resistance to extinction; this is why people endlessly search through these apps," he tells Bustle. "They're getting intermittent hits of possibilities and potential with no end. If you got no responses for month after month, you'd probably lose interest in it pretty quickly." Little bites and matches from numerous people keep your brain interested in the app, and keep you coming back even if you got burned, dumped or ghosted last time.
Your Brain Starts Making Rapid Evaluations
When you see the person who's matched with you, your brain immediately goes into judgement mode. A study in the Journal Of Neuroscience in 2012 looked at the brains of people as they examined photographs of potential dates before a first meeting, and discovered that an area of the brain called the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex showed a lot of activity. The dorsomedial prefrontal cortex is involved in higher functions like working memory and executive attention, and also helps with emotional regulation and decision-making.
"Activity in these areas was attributable to two distinct components of romantic evaluation: either consensus judgments about physical beauty, or individualized preferences based on a partner's perceived personality," the scientists behind the study wrote. When we look at a match, we're already trying to figure out how cute they really are and what they're actually like, on all the cues available.
Your Complementary Opioid System Isn't Really Involved
This may seem odd, but what doesn't happen in the brain in response to dating app matches is just as fascinating as what does. The complementary opioid system is also part of the brain's reward network, but it's not clear if dating apps engage it in a meaningful way. "Any kind of validation that we get — likes, retweets, comments, any sort of engagement — will give a miniature satisfaction, but it never quite tips into a fuller sensation," Nahai tells Bustle. "The complementary opioid system kicks in when we have a greater sense of satiety, but that doesn't really happen on apps; it's quite a limited experience."
If you find the rush of a match on a dating app hard to resist, it's not just you. The apps are designed to tap into parts of our brains that create intense sensations of reward, without ever making us feel permanently happy and satisfied — unless, of course, you find true love and delete the app from your phone entirely.