Our Lizard Brain Helps Determine Dating Preferences

The term “lizard brain” refers colloquially to the most primitive part of the human brain.

This brain area is responsible for basic impulses and fundamental survival instincts, like hunger, reproduction, and the fight-or-flight response. 

It’s called the “lizard brain” because it is evolutionarily old and is believed to be similar to the brain of a lizard.

So what does this have to do with our instinct to swipe right or left?

Keep reading to find out more!

This article will cover:

  • What we mean when we say “lizard brain”
  • How the lizard brain plays a role in who we find attractive
  • Why society and culture cause us to clash with the lizard brain

What we’re really referring to when we say “lizard brain”

In popular culture, the term “lizard brain” has been expanded to mean more than just the primitive brain structure.

It’s used as a way to refer to the human limbic system as a whole.

The limbic system is a complex set of structures that includes the amygdala, hippocampus, thalamus, hypothalamus, basal ganglia, and cingulate gyrus.

These structures play crucial roles in emotion, behavior, motivation, long-term memory, and sense of smell.

The limbic system also operates below the level of conscious thought. 

So when we use the term “lizard brain” in reference to the limbic system, we highlight the more instinctual, automatic, or primal reactions that humans sometimes exhibit.

How the lizard brain contributes to our physical preferences

Have you ever wondered why you repeatedly find certain physical traits in another attractive?

Or why your best friend might find someone extremely attractive and you don’t?

It seems true that everyone has a “type,” and everybody’s type is different. 

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But why?

If, as humans, we have all evolved with the same primal instincts and biological features, why do we all have different types?

The answer is that while we all have a lizard brain, our lizard brains have evolved to meet the pressures and requirements of our specific environments.

Like birds in different parts of the world evolve traits needed to thrive in their specific habitats, our brains evolved to thrive in different environments in other parts of the world. 

So the environment in which one grows up and lives can definitely influence mate selection. 

For example, in environments where resources are scarce, preferences might lean towards individuals who show signs of resource accumulation, like fleshier bodies. 

In places with harsh sunlight, preferences might direct you towards individuals with darker complexions with more melanin.

Your lizard brain, or the limbic system, plays a significant role in emotional responses, sexual arousal, and pleasure.

All of which might influence attraction and the choice of a relationship partner.

Here are some ways the limbic system might influence attraction and partner selection:

1. Through Physical Arousal

Not surprisingly, sexual attraction is mainly unconscious.

The hypothalamus, a part of the limbic system, plays a role in sexual arousal and response by acting as an integrative center for signals related to sexual arousal. 

It coordinates physiological responses (like changes in hormone levels or genital responses, i.e., erection) and behaviors (like mating behaviors).

The hypothalamus also spurs the release of neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin, causing the sensations of lust or love

It processes various inputs, from hormones to sensory cues, to modulate and drive sexual activity.

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2. Through Reward and Pleasure

The limbic system is involved in the brain’s reward pathways. 

The neurotransmitters like dopamine mentioned above are associated with pleasure and reward, contributing further to feelings of romantic love. 

When people talk about  “chemistry” with a partner, they often refer to these reward pathways lighting up, whether they know it or not.

3. Through Smell 

The olfactory bulb, which processes smells, has direct connections to the amygdala and hippocampus, both parts of the limbic system. 

Some research suggests that distinct body scents, influenced by genes of the major histocompatibility complex (MHC), can play a role in partner selection. 

People might be subconsciously attracted to partners with dissimilar MHC genes, which would offer genetic advantages to offspring.

How we (sometimes) fight against our lizard brain

Cultural norms and societal standards play a massive role in shaping our dating preferences. 

Different cultures may value certain physical traits, personality characteristics, or social statuses over others. 

Our individual experiences can also have a significant impact on preferences. 

Early relationships, bonds with caregivers, and interpersonal interactions throughout life can shape the type of person one is attracted to. 

And while the limbic system plays a role in the process of partner selection, it is also influenced by many other factors, like:

  • higher cognitive functions
  • personal experiences
  • sociocultural norms
  • learned behaviors
  • conscious decisions 

The prefrontal cortex, for instance, is involved in decision-making, long-term planning, and social judgments, which are also critical in the context of relationships.

Research has shown that when women are asked to think about having a one-night stand, they are more interested in men they find physically attractive.

But when asked to think about a long-term relationship, physical attractiveness is less important to women.

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These preferences may reflect the evolutionary partnership of the limbic system with higher-order-thinking brain areas like the prefrontal cortex. 

Still, even with all this in mind, the lizard brain is a powerful force, so sexual or romantic yearning tends to overpower thoughts from our more rational brain. 

Helen Fisher, Ph.D., a biological anthropologist and author of Anatomy of Love: A Natural History of Mating, Marriage, and Why We Stray, says that  “people often make up their mind about someone within the first three minutes [of encountering them].” 

She points out that “We can overlook a great number of problems” in the object of our desire, meaning that the drive from our primal lizard brain often wins out when selecting a mate. 

What to keep in mind

When it comes down to it, who we find attractive is primarily instinctual, thanks to our lizard brain. 

However, it is possible to fight the urges of primal feelings and put more thought into choosing our romantic partners. 

Understanding all the factors determining our pull toward others is critical to being more thoughtful and open-minded about our attractions. 

If we can stay conscious of our ingrained preferences and the qualities that trigger our attraction, we can also incorporate our own judgments and higher thinking. 

This will allow us to be more intentional in dating and expand our pool of potential romantic mates. 

What traits does your lizard brain tell you to go for when looking for a date?

Do you usually listen to your lizard brain try to use more logic and reasoning?

Tell us in the comment section!

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