Interview: Dr. Michael Merzenich Discusses the Neuroscience Behind Dating Apps

Dr. Michael Merzenich is the Chief Scientific Officer of Posit Science, a company that develops plasticity-based brain training software and assessments.

His breakthrough work on brain plasticity helped him challenge the notion that it ends in adolescence, suggesting instead that a human’s brain remains malleable throughout their life.

Dr. Merzenich appeared on the latest episode of BrainHQ’s ‘Your Brain On’ video series, where he discusses how the brain’s functionality reacts to being in love and how it is treated like an addiction.

Here, GDI spoke to the Kavli Prize-winning neuroscientist about how dating apps are changing the way we experience love.

Read the full interview below:

Tell us about the kind of work you’ve done on the science of romance.

MM: I’ve studied the basic science of brain plasticity – how the brain changes chemically, structurally, and functionally in response to experience – throughout my career. And, of course, meeting someone new, falling love, and becoming attached to another person are some of the strongest experiences that a person can have in their lives. Naturally, these experiences can drive some of the biggest changes in brain that a person can have. As we begin to build a life in partnership with another person, virtually every experience we have becomes intensely associated with that other person in some way – meaning our brain pairs that person strongly with almost everything that we do. That’s why a fleeting thought, or remembering a place, or smelling a scent can immediately bring such powerful memories of our partner to us – the brain has rebuilt itself through brain plasticity to pair memories of all those things in association with our partner. In a very literal way, our romantic partners are inside our head, and have changed us.”

What is happening neurologically when someone picks up a dating app and starts to browse or swipe? 

MM: “Weknow that when a person does something rewarding – like going on a great date and meeting a fun person – the brain releases dopamine, a neurochemical associated with reward. What’s interesting is that the brain doesn’t actually need to get the reward to release dopamine – if the brain anticipates reward coming in the future, it also releases dopamine. So when a person starts to swipe through potential matches on a dating app, the brain automatically starts to anticipate the excitement and reward of a date, and it releases dopamine. An interesting consequence of this is that browsing a dating app itself can become rewarding, without actually going on a date. That could become a problem, as people might over time substitute the virtual experience of browsing for dates for the real lived experience of going on a date.

How does that change as they start to have a meaningful conversation with a match, or go out on a real-world date?

MM: “When the experience moves out of the digital and into the physical, the brain goes into overdrive. Instead of just a small visual picture, the brain is engaged by all of the senses – hearing the voice of your date, seeing your date in full, the smells of where you meet, and of course the sense of touch. These sensory experiences even more richly engage the reward system of the brain and produce dopamine. But, if you have very high expectations of reward – maybe that picture had been retouched just a bit – then the real-world experience may not live up to your expectation. When that happens, the brain actually pauses its release of dopamine – and it feels bad. Even if a date could have been OK, the high expectations can lead to negative neurological – and real-world – experience.”

What are the neurotransmitters we associate with deeper connections? What causes them to surface?

MM: “Dating and romance is a whole brain activity – and it involves virtually every neurotransmitter in the brain. Noradrenaline is released  by the novelty and the surprises and the fun of date, and makes you feel excited and bright – that “on” feeling. Acetylcholine is released by the sharp attention you pay to your date and the experience – and it primes your brain to change through your experience, perhaps starting or deepening a connection with your partner. Dopamine, of course is released when you have  a good experience, and teaches the brain to do more of what led to that good experience (bring flowers again – that went well!). And finally, the hormone oxytocin is released as an attachment grows deeper, and leads to more permanent bonding. Of course, all this chemical release works out best if it’s in sync with the reactions of your date!”