Looking at attraction through the lens of biology is actually the purest way to see it.
All the extreme trappings of the modern-day dating scene—Ferraris, tiny bikinis, sprawling mansions, pick-up lines—ultimately work toward the exact same purpose. They create attraction in an instinctual and almost animalistic way that we can’t really rationalize to ourselves. They excite and release hormones, and then something happens. We don’t know how to explain it, but we know it when we see it! It’s happened for thousands of years, and only recently have we as a species been able to study scientifically what is actually happening when two people make eye contact with each other across the room or decide to move in together.
Often, we don’t fully understand our own actions, but they can usually be boiled down to one of the factors presented in this chapter. This is because attraction has been hard-coded in our genes. We have evolved over thousands of years to be attracted to certain aspects and traits that indicate that someone will be a good partner—in biological terms, at least.
We can see this in our conscious actions: in the beginning phases of dating someone new, you do this to an incredible degree. You pay for everything, you put your best face and outfit on, you act courteously, and you generally try to make your best impression. You make sure you smell nice and look good and pay special attention to showcasing your talents and skills. We present all our positives while subtly obscuring our negative traits and shortcomings. This influences everything from haircuts to wearing high-heeled shoes.
How do we recognize these effects in our subconscious actions? Well, some of the aforementioned conscious actions are subconscious to some! Just because something seems like a no-brainer in terms of attracting a mate doesn’t mean it’s a no-brainer to everyone. Why do men suddenly suck in their guts and puff out their chest when a beautiful woman enters the room, and why do women flip their hair and also puff out their chests when a handsome man walks in? If someone doesn’t realize they are doing that by instinct, imagine how many of our actions or criteria for mates we are simply using by unexamined reflex?
The point is, our ways of generating attraction are mostly subconscious and mostly biological and evolutionary by nature. Even the way you talk to the opposite sex and attempt to flirt has biological roots and is not a product of random chance. It explains why you tend to be attracted to certain types of people and even why certain types repulse you.
At the most basic level, this is best summed up with the sociobiological theory of attraction, which puts everything through the perspective of propagating our offspring (that’s the biology part) in our particular society (that’s the sociological part). In other words, what heavily influences attractiveness in each gender is an unconscious consideration of the likelihood of children and genetic offspring.
Men will seek young, attractive women—women who can physically bear children and aren’t sexually involved with others so as to reduce the chance of raising another male’s children. Women will seek men not necessarily based on physical strength, but rather on power and dominance within a society. They are seeking to provide safety and security for their children, and that can be found in many forms. You can already see how this theory plays out in our modern era.
You can see the common stereotypes of men being more physically shallow, while women are more financially shallow. Could it actually be true, for non-nefarious, subconscious biological reasons? Some would say yes. Human beings are powerfully influenced by our biology, but we are also a complex species. What about the seventy-year-old couple who claim to be more madly in love with one another than ever before, even though both are retired, have no financial worries and have long since forgotten about child rearing? What about young women who get obsessed with men who are neither physically attractive nor financially successful? And no matter how raging any teenager’s libido is, they are also a demographic known for strenuously avoiding pregnancy!
All this is to say that though biology is a significant influence on human sexuality (biology), it’s not the only one (culture). Nevertheless, by understanding one of the oldest and most fundamental aspects of human attraction, we start to see that attraction is not quite as mysterious and unpredictable as we may have thought.
The Neurochemistry of Attraction
Using neuroimaging techniques like MRIs, scientists have been able to observe the physiological changes in the brain that happen when people fall in love, or even when they think about someone they’re attracted to. Certain brain structures show increased activity—and certain parts nearly switch off.
One part that shows reduced activity is the frontal cortex. This is the area of the brain responsible for judgment, self-control and higher order cognition. Semir Zeki at the University College London explains how a team of researchers asked people to look at pictures of those they were in love with, then watched what happened in their brains. With the judgment parts of the brain shut down, it’s as though criticism and doubt are momentarily suspended—it’s the neurological equivalent of rose-tinted glasses. This may have an important evolutionary function, since being a bit more forgiving in our appraisals of the opposite sex makes bonding and reproduction more likely.
Another area of the brain that shuts down is one associated with fear and negative emotions. This makes sense, since if people are unable to overcome this hesitation, they’ll never be brave enough to approach others and risk the perils of romantic attachment. If you’ve ever seen a friend totally besotted with a new partner (or you have been in this position yourself!), you’ll know that love and attraction can make people fearless and even reckless, completely unconcerned with the consequences of their actions as they fall head over heels.
The neurological picture of attraction and love confirms what many people have long suspected: that love is irrational, uncontrollable, and not in the least predictable. That, in fact, we “lose our minds” and in a very real sense stop being able to think critically about things. While the poets are sure something mystical is happening, the evolutionary biologist might point to the fact that when it comes to attraction and mating, the higher brain is simply not a part of the picture!
What does this mean for anyone wanting to increase their attractiveness and make those connections with others? Well, hopefully you can see it has nothing to do with saying the right words or ticking the right boxes. It’s not possible to have a reasoned, logical argument with someone and convince them to find you attractive. And people aren’t attracted just because they decide they want to be. Rather, initial sexual attraction is a purely biological, unconscious and embodied phenomenon.
Humans evolved from animals who did not possess the higher cortical brain structures we possess now and so didn’t use language or reason or critical thinking. But just because humans now have the ability to think, plan, imagine, analyze, and create, it doesn’t mean we’ve lost our animal origins—in fact, the realm of dating, sex, and relationships may be where our more primal biology becomes most obvious. Whether you are looking for a quick fling or a long term, committed, and loving relationship, the fact is that most connections begin with at least a flicker of animal attraction.
Let’s apply this:
The attracted, in-love brain is one where fear and hesitation are at an all-time low, and so are rationality, doubt and analytical thinking. If you hope to inspire loved up feelings in someone else, you need to understand that attraction cannot exist in a fearful mind, or one that is caught up in analytical rumination—that applies to you and to the person you’d like to attract!
Before we dive into the different approaches and principles of building attraction, we start with these fundamentals:
Attraction can never build if we are inducing fear, hesitation, panic, or worry in other people. Likewise, we will seldom inspire others to be attracted to us if we are acting from a place of fear and nervousness. One of the best things you can do for your dating game? Relax. Genuinely relax. In the same way, keep in mind that you never want to pressure anyone or make them feel awkward, unrelaxed, hurried, or as though you are forcing something. They need to feel relaxed, too.
Attraction flourishes when we switch off the analytical logical mind. Attraction comes from our animal brains, and it’s all about play and pleasure. You need to enjoy the process and make sure the other person is enjoying it too. Laugh at yourself, don’t take things too seriously, and let go of any hesitation around any ideas that seem kind of dated or sexist—love and relationships are messy, and, well, what works isn’t always what our polite, rational mind likes to think is best.