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Op-Ed: What your brain does when you see sexy person

By Eko Armunanto     Mar 4, 2013 in Science
A scientific research concludes that dorsomedial prefrontal cortex mediates rapid evaluations predicting the outcome of romantic interactions.
Humans frequently make real-world decisions based on rapid evaluations of minimal information; for example, should we talk to an attractive stranger at a party? Little is known, however, about how the brain makes rapid evaluations with real and immediate social consequences, said Jeffrey C. Cooper et al. in The Journal of Neuroscience. They were trying to figure this out by scanning all the brains of their research participants with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while they viewed photos of individuals that they subsequently met at real-life “speed-dating” events.
There are parts of brain responsible for "predicting" whether each individual would be ultimately pursued for a romantic relationship or rejected: dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (DMPFC), paracingulate cortex, and rostromedial prefrontal cortex (RMPFC).
"Activity in these areas was attributable to two distinct components of romantic evaluation: either consensus judgments about physical beauty (paracingulate cortex) or individualized preferences based on a partner's perceived personality (RMPFC)", said the scientists, "Even a first glance can accurately predict romantic desire, but that glance involves a mix of physical and psychological judgments that depend on specific regions of DMPFC".
However, another scientific research by Serge Stoleru et al. at CERMEP unveiled one of the biological aspects of this supposedly abstract phenomenon called "desire". Their findings suggest not only that brain's activities are related to sexual desire, but have also identified the precise brain areas concerned:
The first was the inferior temporal cortex, a region also corresponding to the visual associative zone. The researchers inferred that the subject was assessing and analyzing the visual stimulus when this zone was activated, corresponding to the perceptive-cognitive component of sexual arousal.
The second region was the right orbitofrontal cortex, which might be related to emotional and motivational phenomena.
The third area was the left anterior cingulate cortex, which appears to control primary physiological responses (endocrine and autonomic), but also affective responses, to sexual stimuli. In other words, it would govern physical and psychological preparation for sexual activity.
The fourth region was the right insula, that could be involved in subjective perception of physiological modifications associated with arousal (heart rate acceleration, penile erection, etc.)
Finally, the right caudate nucleus probably controls whether sexual arousal is followed by sexual activity.
Eight healthy right-handed young men, aged between 21 and 25, were selected to participate voluntarily. "Subjects in this type of study must all be either right-handed or left-handed because emotions are lateralized in the brain", the report explained. They showed all the volunteers a series of three radically different six-minute films, in the following order: an emotionally neutral sequence (a geographic documentary); an extract from a comedy film (to provoke positive emotions) and a sexually explicit sequence (eliciting sexual emotions). All of them watched the films while being monitored by a positron emission tomograph, a device which provides extremely detailed images of the brain and can be used to identify brain regions that are activated during different mental operations.
Sex and love are not the same, but being sexualy attracted to a person is not too different, in the brain, from being fall in love. Donna Adamo wrote about a groundbreaking study entitled “The Neuroimaging of Love” conducted by Syracuse University Professor Stephanie Ortigue which revealed "falling in love can elicit not only the same euphoric feeling as using cocaine, but also affects intellectual areas of the brain". Researchers also found falling in love only takes about a fifth of a second.
Ortigue’s team revealed that when a person falls in love, 12 areas of the brain work in tandem to release euphoria-inducing chemicals such as dopamine, oxytocin, adrenaline and vasopression. "The love feeling also affects sophisticated cognitive functions, such as mental representation, metaphors and body image", they said.
But who fall in love, the heart or the brain?
“That’s a tricky question always. I would say the brain, but the heart is also related because the complex concept of love is formed by both bottom-up and top-down processes from the brain to the heart and vice versa. For instance, activation in some parts of the brain can generate stimulations to the heart, butterflies in the stomach. Some symptoms we sometimes feel as a manifestation of the heart may sometimes be coming from the brain”, said Ortique.
Blood levels of nerve growth factor, or NGF, also increased. Those levels were significantly higher in couples who had just fallen in love. This molecule involved plays an important role in the social chemistry of humans, or the phenomenon 'love at first sight'. These results confirm love has a scientific basis, said Professor Ortigue.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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