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Dating From the Inside Out
by Susan S. Davis

Dating and "The Tribal Brain"

The human brain is considered one of the most complex and extraordinary creations in the universe. A virtual residence to the mind and persona, the brain shelters thought, including prized memories and future desires. Much like a musical masterpiece, it amasses the composition of awareness that serves as a foundation for purpose, passion, motivation and sensation.

According to science, the brain has essentially three components:

1) the most primitive part is the inner, or ‘inferior” brain, similar to that of a reptile. It is in that section that the brainstem controls involuntary functions fundamental to the body’s existence, such as circulation and respiration;

2) the intermediary portion is similar to that of older mammals and controls emotions, and

3) the outermost, or “higher,” part of the brain, is the dominant area in higher mammals, including all primates, and man. This is where "rational" activity, such as perception, conscience, learning, language and voluntary actions are directed from.

It is in the primitive portion of the brain that the most basic behaviors and actions for the survival of individuals and the preservation of the species are generated (the catalyst for instincts such as sex, social hierarchy, territory, etc). Civilized men and women are driven by the functions of the primitive brain. For thousands of years, humans have been involved in ritualistic behaviors, such as defensive and predatory behavior.

There also exists a powerful tendency toward tribalism (a strong feeling of identity with and loyalty to a certain group such as family, village, race, etc.). On the surface of the biological framework, diverse human cultures have developed. The core commonality among them, is the “tribal mind.” Edward Wilson, who developed "Sociobiology,” maintained that tribalism was fundamental for the evolution of the human brain. Ultimately, however, neither genes nor environment alone are responsible for human behavior.

So, what does all this have to do with dating?

The peacock feathers of human mating have been studied for generations by scientists, including the swish and swagger that indicate sexual interest, the courtship dance of public display. We know there's an inborn human urge to mate, and love is a mystery, a promise. Research has suggested that romantic attraction is a primitive, biologically based drive, like hunger or sex. The drive for romance allows humans to focus on one particular person, while physical lust is what makes interests wander, though it is often impossible to explain why.

The physical biology of romance dictates passionate love, and can often explain the insanity associated with it; for example, why someone might put themselves or others at great emotional or physical risk simply to attain a connection, or drown in despair at the advent of the loss of love.

Studies of animals during courtship and, most recently, findings by scientists studying the human brain along with magnetic resonance imaging, (MRI), machines to observe the brains of college students in the early stages of love, have developed some of the first direct evidence that the neural mechanisms of romantic attraction are distinct from those of sexual attraction and arousal.

Helen Fisher, an anthropologist at Rutgers University in New Jersey, details the biological basis for romantic attachment in a paper from the journal of Neuroendocrinology Letters. “What we're seeing here is the biological drive to choose a mate, to focus on one person to the exclusion of all others. Let's say you walk into a party and there are several attractive women or men there. Your brain is registering this attraction for each one; then you talk to the third or fourth one, and whoosh -- you feel something extra.”

Ms. Fisher's group analyzed more than 3,000 brain scans of 18 smitten college students, taken while they looked at a picture of the person they’d “fallen” for. Neurobiologists Andreas Bartels and Semir Zeki of the University College, London explained that when shown a picture of an intended romantic partner, brain activity pattern was markedly different from that of a close friend. The pictures showed that the romantic attraction activated the areas of the brain with a high concentration of receptors for dopamine, the euphoria, craving and addiction chemical.

Biologists have also linked high levels of dopamine and the related chemical, norepinephrine, to increased attention, short-term memory, hyperactivity, sleeplessness and goal-oriented behavior. Ms. Fisher believes that when first captivated, couples often show the signs of surging dopamine: increased energy, less need for sleep or food, focused attention and exquisite delight in smallest details of the new relationship.

The MRI images were compared to brain scans taken from individuals in different emotional states, including sexual arousal, feelings of happiness and cocaine-induced euphoria. While the pattern for romantic love was unique, there was some overlap with other positive states, per the report. Mr. Zeki stated, "This makes sense. These were young people who were practically willing to die for their lover. You would expect that the images would reflect many strong emotions all at once."

In one recent University of Minnesota study, researcher Ellen Berscheid found that when a group of young men and women to made lists of all their friends; the people they loved; everyone they thought sexually attractive; and finally, of those with whom they were “in love,” the last list was the shortest, usually just one name. However, that same person was named on all the lists. "It's this combination of friendship, affection and lust, that makes it so powerful,” explained Ms. Berscheid.

And it is this power, that is strong enough to alter judgment in otherwise sensible people, the same as a spike in dopamine activity might. Newly smitten people often idealize partners, justifying flaws and embellishing positive elements. This "pink lens effect," is often sharply at odds with the perceptions of everyone else outside of the relationship. "It's very common; they think they have a relationship that's more special, closer, than anyone else's," said Ms. Berscheid.

Passionate love's euphoria is strong enough to propel many people through the first stages of courtship, when lovers are in close proximity, often contented at very minimal activity. But that pink lens effect might also help people through the last stage, when tension and uncertainty about the couple's future result in arguments.

Regardless of what types of feelings we may have, it is always helpful to be aware of what is happening chemically within our brains as we meet potential romantic dating partners who may quite easily, wind up capturing our hearts. To understand what is happening biologically, is to better ascertain and determine which feelings are more “real,” in terms of being more credible, and which actually may be the result of a mere chemical reaction that could realistically end without the other components in place. It is in this way, along with developing our social goals, that we can more easily focus on actual relationship objectives, and, perhaps avoid being sidetracked on the quest for romantic harmony, whatever that may mean for each individual.

Susan S. Davis is a published book author and writer, currently doing research for a romantic screenplay she is writing. Her Dating From The Inside Out column is published every Tuesday.

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