Posts Tagged ‘Attraction’

Why do we like whom we like?

Sunday, April 4th, 2010

Along with blooming flowers, comes the promise of new relationships. When spring arrives, new couples can be seen holding hands while strolling under the beautiful emerging sun. But, what is love and how does it happen? In Annie Reed’s words from Sleepless in Seattle “love is like magic.” But what makes us fall in love with that one person, or moreover, why are we attracted to one person giving us that unique feeling of magic.

Many theories have been proposed on the science of falling in love, but most share a common theme that love is comprised of intimacy, compassion, attraction, and attachment. How these feelings develop is often described in three stages. The first is lust or physical attraction driven by sexual hormones in men and women. The second stage is attraction, but not the sexual kind, rather the “crush” kind. Adrenaline is responsible for those sweats and rapid heart beats you experience when someone you are attracted to approaches and dopamine is responsible for that feeling of pleasure and energy you get when thinking about or being with your crush. The third and final stage is attachment. This stage is usually due to oxytocin and vasopressin both hormones which lead to a feeling of attachment and intimacy with your partner.

Finding someone attractive at first sight is a different story. We are for the most part attracted to people who are compatible with us in socioeconomically, intellectually, religiously, and ethnically. However, these factors only seem relevant after two people have gotten to know each other. But what makes you turn your head, and what makes you feel a connection to a person without getting to know them? Scientific studies attribute attraction to evolution. We search for characteristics that have been engrained in us since the first Homo sapiens. A symmetrical face for both men and women is said to be most attractive while for women a youthful hourglass figure is attractive because evolutionary speaking, it means the woman is healthy for child rearing and carrying on a male’s genes. Women are said to be more attracted to men with angular faces and prominent jaws and greater muscle mass signs of greater testosterone levels, therefore more protection. Clear and smooth skin, fuller lips, bright eyes, and lustrous hair are also signs of attraction as evolutionary speaking they signify health.

Helen Fisher, the author of the book Why him? Why her? suggests that attraction is due to hormone levels. According to Fisher, hormones attract other hormones and so a high level of a hormone in one person can attract a high level of hormone in another person. This leads to certain personality types in humans which she has outlined (check out a more detailed explanation of her work here). Other factors such as scent, which actually deals with pheromones that signal brain responses of attraction, and personal history such as whether or not someone reminds you of your first love, is more personal and specific to a person in the laws of attraction. Aside from all these evolutionary qualities people often search for a mate who shares similar characteristics in hopes of building a family.

One thing though that most scientists agree is that attraction and love is a result of fortuitous encounters. A chance meeting can lead to a life together. Sometimes love and relationships follow the saying “in the right place at the right time.”

Pretty Boys Finish First

Friday, November 6th, 2009

I have a bit of bad news for all you hunkaramas out there. A recent study from the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution suggests that with women popping birth control pills worldwide, masculine men might be left at the wayside for the prettier members of their sex. The study found that women who are on the pill find men with feminine features more attractive than do women who are not on the pill. How could such a little pill cause such a change? Simply put, the pill messes with the cyclic pattern of female mate preference. An earlier study published in Nature found that women are attracted to different kinds of men as a function of where they are in their menstrual cycle. When women  are ovulating they go gaga for the testosterone filled macho types with symmetrical faces and a dissimilar genetic blueprint; they prefer the men who will spawn healthy and strong babies. However, once ovulation ends women begin to fawn over a different type of man: the pretty boy. These men seem more caring, tend to be more girly, and share more genetic similarities with the female than their hunky counterparts.

What might be the point of such mate preference cycle? Women in the long run want a man who will be a good father and will invest time and energy into their offspring, but they also want their child to have the genes from a strong, healthy man. I smell a potential for adultery!

But that problem is not what we are here to discuss. Back to the pill. The birth control pill was released in the early 1960's and is now used by 20%t of women in North America and 50% of women in Western Europe. That is a lot of women. When a woman pops the pill on a daily basis it increases and levels her estrogen and progesterone by simulating the hormonal state of pregancy. The pill therefore mimics the state that women are in when they prefer men with more feminine features.

This explains why women on the pill might be more attracted to Leo DiCaprio than Hugh Jackman.

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Alvergne, A., Lummaa, V. (2009) Does the contraceptive pill alter mate choice in humans? Trends in Ecology and Evolution

Penton-Voak, I. S., Perrett, D. I., Castles, D. L., Kobayashi, T., Burt, D. M., Murray, L. K., & Minamisawa, R. (1999). Menstrual cycle alters face preference. Nature, 399, 741–742.

Love and Sex and Magic

Tuesday, October 6th, 2009

The concept of the "love potion” has been one of great fascination throughout history and, more recently, in popular media such as the magical Harry Potter series.  Without a doubt, many have stopped to think, "Would it be possible to brew love in a bottle?”

Before you scoff at such nonsense, however, consider this: recent studies show that love may depend immensely on the chemistry experienced not only between a couple, but within the complex pathways of their brains.

A classic example of "love” chemicals in action is the vole romance.  When prairie voles mate, the hormones oxytocin and vasopressin are released. If these hormones are inhibited, vole sex becomes merely a promiscuous affair not unlike the nondiscriminatory sex often witnessed in animals. When the voles receive these hormones by injection, however, and are prevented from mating, the voles still form a fairly monogamous preference for their partner. In essence, it would appear that scientists could make prairie voles fall in love with a single injection, not far off from the concept of a love potion.

It turns out that prairie voles have receptors for oxytocin and vasopressin in brain pathways associated with reward and reinforcement, and such receptors are also present in the human brain.

But how can one achieve higher oxytocin levels and a better love life without resorting to needles? Do what the voles do.

Oxytocin levels rise during both foreplay and orgasm in both men and women, boosting trust and creating a deeper sense of attachment.  A good illustration of how important oxytocin is in maintaining trust in a relationship is a laboratory investment game devised by neuro-economist Ernst Fehr at the University of Zurich in Switzerland. It turns out that almost half the people playing the role of an "investor” would hand over all their money to an anonymous trustee, with no guarantee of its return, only if they sniffed an oxytocin spray beforehand! In this sense, sex may very well be the all-natural love potion.

There is still much to learn about the chemical workings of love, and man may never be able to brew the true love potion of fairy tales and myths, but perhaps enough is now known to make you believe in love and sex and magic.

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Anderson, Alun, and Lucy Middleton.. "What is this thing called love?." New Scientist 190.2549 (29 Apr. 2006): 32-34.

The Anomaly of Men in Love

Sunday, October 4th, 2009

And men think women are complicated… so how do men process what they look for in a mate? How does the male mind comprehend the concept of "love”? Women have been asking themselves those questions as long as men and women have happily coexisted (or sometimes, not so happily). So how do men really "think” about love? Helen Fisher’s Why We Love? discusses the observations of brain activity of those in love, which in this case, provide the best (and tough!) answers to these questions.

Fisher cites that an fMRI on the brain circuitry of people in love showed more activity in brain regions associated with visual processing, primarily of the face, of men compared to women. This brain activity could help to explain why men generally fall in love more quickly than women – when a man sees an attractive woman, he is psychologically outfitted to correlate eye-catching visual features of that woman with romantic infatuation. What this also explains is why men are ardent supporters of the pornography industry, as well as to why women go to such amazing lengths to broadcast their visual assets, with makeup, clothing and jewelry. It’s true; men are more likely to choose women who exhibit visual signs of youth and beauty. According to Fisher, "American men who place courtship ads in newspapers and magazines are three times more likely than women to mention that they seek beauty in a partner."

So men like attractive women because men are visual animals. Fact. But evolutionarily speaking, psychologists now believe that men subconsciously prefer youth and beauty because it gives them reproductive payoffs. Smooth skin, white teeth, sparkling eyes, a lithe body, and a lively personality are all good qualities for bearing and rearing children. Combined with a 0.7 hip to waist ratio and a symmetrical face, those features draw men to women for their superior genes, not just solely because they are visually favorable.

It has been said, "Why does a woman have to be beautiful rather than intelligent?: Because men can see better than they think.” Although, this is thought of as an old joke, it sure does seem to contain a piece of truth.  For men, the eyes (and brain!) don’t lie.