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Speed-Dating Lights Up Key Brain Areas

FRIDAY, Nov. 16 (HealthDay News) -- Speed-dating encounters activate disparate areas of the brain that are tied to making choices or considering social pressures, a new study finds.

"Psychologists have known for some time that people can often make very rapid judgments about others based on limited information, such as appearance," study co-author John O'Doherty, psychology professor at the California Institute of Technology, said in an institute news release.

"However, very little has been known about how this might work in real social interactions with real consequences -- such as when making decisions about whether to date someone or not," he noted. "And almost nothing is known about how this type of rapid judgment is made by the brain."

In the study, O'Doherty's team conducted a series of experiments involving 39 heterosexual men and women who quickly viewed pictures of, and briefly met, members of the opposite sex. The participants then disclosed how interested they were in dating those people.

Brain scans revealed that seeing people the participants considered attractive was associated with activity in a region of the brain called the paracingulate cortex. This is part of the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, which plays an important role in decision making. Previous research has shown that the paracingulate cortex becomes active when people are comparing options.

The study also found that when a participant saw someone they wanted to date -- but who was not rated as very desirable by everyone else -- there was increased activation in an area of the brain called the rostromedial prefrontal cortex, which is also a part of the dorsomedial section.

Previous research has shown that the rostromedial prefrontal cortex is associated with consideration of other people's thoughts, comparisons of themselves to others and perceptions of similarities to others.

The findings suggest that in addition to physical attractiveness, people also consider compatibility when making decisions about who they want to date, the researchers said.

"Our work shows for the first time that activity in two parts of the [dorsomedial prefrontal cortex] may be very important for driving the snapshot judgments that we make all the time about other people," O'Doherty said.

The study was published this month in the Journal of Neuroscience.

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-- Robert Preidt

SOURCE: California Institute of Technology, news release, Nov. 12, 2012

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