What do you find attractive in other people? A round butt? A sharp intellect? Or is it “just something about them”?
Attraction is one of the greatest mysteries of humankind.
Whole industries have been built around claiming to know the secret to it’s activation. Whether your own methods are as simple as perfume or aftershave, or as radical as plastic surgery, there is no doubt you have fallen victim to this mindset. We all want to be attractive – physically, intellectually, and even spiritually. It’s a part of human nature.
What attracts us to others can be difficult to articulate. Even if the words come, they often don’t paint the whole picture. Attraction is such a broad and complex topic that it seems impossible to pin down. It’s even further complicated by cultural and personal preference.
What is attractive to me might be repellent to you, and vice versa.
This is what makes the topic such an interesting one in the world of science.
Scientists and Professors from the University of Lubeck recruited nearly one hundred subjects – half men and half women – to engage in two experiments. One was a behavioral study. The other observed behavior as well as brain activity through use of fMRI technology. Both groups watched videos of six women who expressed either fear or sadness. Then, they were asked to evaluate the women’s emotions and describe their level of confidence in their answers.
In the first experiment, researchers asked the subjects to report their level of attraction to each woman. They also used a motivational-behavioral framework to determine attraction. In the second, they used fMRI images to measure activity in the brain’s “reward system” that is present during interpersonal attraction. The researchers were then able to compare the subjects’ self-reported level of attraction with the observed brain activity.
Amazingly, they found the strongest predictor of attraction to be not physical appearance, but emotional understanding.
When a participant felt confident that they had successfully read a woman’s emotional state, they perceived her as being more attractive.
This correlation was confirmed by the neurological imaging. As Silke Anders, author of the study and professor of Social and Affective Neuroscience, explained, “What I believe makes our findings really exciting is the fact that understanding and personal attraction seem to depend on both the sender’s brain and the perceiver’s brain, and on how well they match.”
In addition to an emotional connection, Anders points out, there may be similar brain circuitry between two individuals who find themselves attracted to one another. “If the emotional signals sent by a sender – for example, a facial express of fear or sadness – can efficiently be processed by the perceiver’s brain, then their reward system will fire and they will feel attracted to the sender.”
Researchers also found that brain activity within the anterior insula cortex (the region of the brain associated with emotional awareness) and the ventral striatum (the “reward system”) are very similar. Activity in the emotional awareness region appears to mimic activity in the reward system, and vice-versa. When we are attracted to someone, we are more eager to understand their emotions, and we feel more gratified when we do so successfully.
Instant attraction has long been thought to result primarily from physical and genetic compatibility.
According to this research, however, emotional understanding between two partners may be even more important. Judith Orloff once wrote, “I don’t care how intelligent or attractive someone is, if he zaps your energy, he isn’t for you. True chemistry is more than intellectual compatibility. Beyond surfaces, you must be intuitively at ease.” Perhaps the was on to something.