Modern Love and Your Ancient Brain—Why Experts Are Optimistic About Dating Apps

Updated 02/15/18

As online dating becomes more prevalent and our thumbs garner more action than our sparkling personalities, the debate about whether or not our romantic lives are suffering remains a topic of conversation. "Online dating, more than anything, changes things because it's an infusion of technology into relationships," says Daniel Jones, editor of The New York Times Modern Love column, at a live debate in NYC. "We are always trying to make love easier, you know? We feel like it should be something we can get better at and something that we can solve. And we bring science to it and we bring technology to it. And what I like about love is that none of that ever seems to work."

He's right, it's never simple—even with every well-planned algorithm at our fingertips. Jones wrote in his book: "Love is for the sucker in us, not the skeptic." But as we fall further and further down the rabbit hole of profile pictures, mutual friends, and text conversations, how much is our internet persona messing with our real-life chemical attractions?

Scent is such a large part of attraction—so much so that there's scientific research to support that claim. We wear perfumes to seduce, but our natural pheromones supposedly can attract others too. But are they less important now that we're in the age of swiping? When scent isn't part of the initial equation, does it still have a role in modern dating? Below, experts discuss the way our hardwired brains interact with dating apps—and whether or not we're worse off than ever before.

First things first: What's the deal with pheromones?

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So it seems experts don't all agree regarding pheromones. Some say they absolutely make a difference in your attraction to another human, while others argue there's no concrete evidence to support those claims. The thing they all agree on, of course, is something biological (as well as psychological) is at work.

"Pheromones are the essence of the person," suggests Kim Anami, a holistic sex and relationship expert and founder of Anami Alchemia. "Musk, sexual hormones, and the personality and genetic makeup of someone all rolled into a scent."

"They bring a level of chemistry and attraction between two individuals—that either make one sexy and enticing or not—on a level that is rarely understood," adds Kailen Rosenberg, the CEO and founder of The Lodge Social Club and The Love Architects. "This age-old experience is connected to our brain chemistry, hence our bodies, as part of the equation for natural selection and reproduction."

"Let's consider the study in which gay men sniffed a bunch of anonymous sweat samples. Guess what? They preferred the scent of other gay men," argues Jessica Graham, a sex and intimacy guide, spiritual teacher, Simple Habit meditation teacher, and author of Good Sex. "And heterosexual men enjoyed the scent of a woman. This gives me reason to believe that pheromones (discovered or not) make a huge difference in attraction."

However, when I spoke to a biological anthropologist and scientist, she felt differently. "A huge part of the brain is devoted to visual stimuli and very little to smell system," counters Helen Fisher, Match.com's scientific advisor, "and, there's no question if you smell someone and they smell perfectly horrible, it's going to turn you off. And if they smell really good, they're going to turn you on—but these are not natural odors all the time.

"It's just whatever you wash your hands or hair with or certain things you put in the laundry. We all have what you call an 'odor soup'—a whole combination of what you are and what you eat, how much exercise you get, your hygiene, and also all the products you put on yourself. We can have certain smells about us, no question about it, that turn people on or turn people off, but that's not the whole story."

Similarly, Anami explains, "If either of you is taking pharmaceutical medication, it's going to mask your true scent. Some couples will fight much more when one of them is on something like this, as it changes their chemical reaction to each other. Studies have even shown that women on hormonal birth control will choose different sexual partners."

"Truthfully, I think 'pheromones' as a concept was really just past generations' attempt at understanding why we're naturally drawn to some people more than others, and science has moved on," says Fisher.

She continues, "There are four brain systems that are linked with personal traits: dopamine, serotonin, testosterone, and estrogen. Each one of these biologically based traits naturally draws you to certain personality styles. I did a study of over 100,000 people, and as it turns out, people who were very expressive of the dopamine system, I call them 'explorers,' are very drawn to those like themselves, other explorers—curious, creative, spontaneous, energetic people.

"Those who are very expressive of serotonin, 'builders,' tend to be traditional, cautious, and concrete (rather than theoretical) thinkers also are drawn to people like themselves. And the other two types go for their opposite. High-testosterone people (I call them 'directors') tend to be analytical, logical, and direct, they tend to go for their opposite which is 'negotiators' or high estrogen. 'Negotiators' tend to be holistic, think long-term, imaginative, and intuitive. They're nurturing, compassionate, and emotionally expressive."

And what about swiping culture?

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I wondered how moving away from face-to-face contact affects our biological tendencies. Is it possible to detect pheromone-like attraction as you swipe left or right? "These are not dating sites—these are introducing sites," notes Fisher. "In fact, in 2017, only 6% of singles met somebody at the bar, only 25% met through a friend, and 40% met somebody on the internet.

"What these dating sites do is introduce you to various people, but once you meet them in person, the ancient brain just snaps into action and you smile the way you always did, you laugh the way you always did, you listen the way you always did, you flirt the way you always did. So technology is not changing attraction in any way, it is just simply enabling people to meet a wider range of people. It is changing how we court, no doubt about that."

She continues, "The brain system that lies way below the cortex where you do your thinking, way below the limbic region associated with emotions, lies where romantic love happens—at the base of the brain right near the regions that orchestrate thirst and hunger. Thirst and hunger enable you to remain alive today, and romantic love enables you to focus your energy on a particular person and drive your DNA into tomorrow. So in the basic brain system, it doesn't matter if you meet somebody on a park bench or on the internet—you still have to get out and meet the person.

"Dating apps give you more intellectual insight into what's coming your way. Pheromones (or whatever biological attraction exists) will confirm whether you are a good match or not," says Anami. The truth remains that, no matter what the other person's profile looks like or the photos they choose, you'll have to meet in person and then decide on attraction. Biology will still come into play the same way it always has.

Ultimately, what about modern dating has changed?

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Though so much will never change no matter what kinds of technology are thrown into the mix, aspects of dating in today's world are vastly different than generations past. It's courtship that is so distinctly different. "I'm a baby boomer," says Fisher, "and in my day, somebody just called you up and asked you out. It wasn't a big deal. It was just to see what somebody was like. These days, the first date is a big deal, and the reason is because people don't want to 'catch feelings.' They don't want to get into something they can't get out of, and these days, a first date is expensive. So what they're doing is—I call it 'slow love'—getting to know every single thing about somebody before they get too involved and certainly before they marry. So they're doing other things, 'friends with benefits,' calling them at the last minute, going out for fast food, splitting the bill, having too many drinks. But they're actually getting to know that person to see if they want to go out on a 'real' date. They're just hanging out. Or they'll go out on a one-night stand, begin to think they might like the person a little, and they've basically been friends before the benefits begin. So they're inching into it, just in the middle of the night, not telling friends or relatives, not being a social couple, just learning about somebody, and then slowly going out slowly telling friends and family, slowly beginning to date regularly, and then slowly moving in and living together before they wed.

After so much literature about how modern dating is killing romance, it's refreshing to hear a take on contemporary relationships that doesn't skew negative. We can complain all we'd like when a love interest doesn't watch our Instagram stories, 'like' a photo, or offer a text back. But the reality of it is we're constantly connected. We don't have to wonder what they're doing or who they're with because we can see it, plain and simple, on their social media feeds. There's a level of intimacy in that even if it can feel distant or anxiety-ridden at times. Ultimately, it allows you to have more information, a fuller picture of the person you're contemplating spending time with. "I'm very optimistic about this because, by the time you walk down the aisle, you know who you have and you've learned a lot about yourself, your partner, and gotten rid of the ones you don't want. Americans think all these new dating habits are reckless, but I think it's caution—it's slow love."

There is the issue of seemingly unbound choices, though. We have to remember to use this new technology to our advantage instead of our detriment. It's so easy to swipe left or right and forget there's a person behind the screen. I'll find myself interested in someone for days before promptly forgetting they exist. It has to do with the way our brains are wired. "Online, people will flip from one person to another person to another person, and that doesn't have to do with pheromones, it has to do with what we call 'cognitive overload,' explains Fisher. "The brain is not built to take in a thousand options and choose between them. The brain is such that the more you get to know somebody, the more you like them, and the more you think that they are like you."

'Slow love' isn't solely a result of technology, but the prevalence of women in high-powered careers. It's more rare to feel ready to settle down in your early 20s because you're busy becoming an adult on your own accord. Today, marriage isn't the goal like it used to be. The bottom line is that things are changing, but not everything. You'll get introduced on the internet and invited out by text message, but falling in love feels as magical, terrifying, and crazy as it always has. Chemical attraction will continue to live in this hard-to-explain, bizarre portal of the human existence. But would we really want it any other way?

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