My Best & Worst Dates: Explained By Neuroscience

Dating is an exercise in many things.

Patience. Open-mindedness. Tolerance. For people and for cocktails.

But more and more, I realize that dating is first and foremost an exercise in creativity.

We all have dates when we’re the best versions of ourselves. Vibrant, charming, brilliantly witty, and endlessly fascinating. You’re so on, you seduce yourself. Nights when it’s effortless, when it’s natural, when my conversational prowess flows like the mid-priced bottle of wine. When I can’t help but flatter myself, Oh Jessica, when did you get so funny?

We also have dates when we’re a damp towel version of ourselves. Nights when my foot is so far in my mouth or the cat’s holding my tongue so tight that I take another sip and write it off as a free plate of tapas, but overall lost opportunity.

I’ve mulled over this A/B experiment many times. What’s the difference between a date that draws out the most shiny sides of yourself versus one where you start bracing for the fact that you’ll likely die alone? Is it him? Is it me? Is it the feng shui of the restaurant? Is it the lunar cycle?

While I’m all about blaming the guy, I’ve recently grown to appreciate that my inability to spark with someone isn’t necessarily a function of him being uninteresting as a person or me being uninterested in him. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

It’s about self-monitoring. It’s about inhibition. It’s about dampened creativity circuits. And the more you try to impress your mate, the deeper hole you’ll dig. Before I reveal more unflattering information about my personal life, let me back this with a little bit of science.

Iggy Izalea & Tupac in the Lab | The Neural Basis of Creativity

In a previous life, I worked in a lab that stuck rappers in brain scanners. I know, it keeps getting weirder.

While rapping is a skill that no amount of practice or intoxicants will coax out of me, it is perhaps a peak example of flow states and spontaneous creativity. My lab, in collaboration with Charles Limb’s group at Johns Hopkins (check out his rockstar TEDtalk), studied the brains of rappers and jazz musicians as they generated novel content from thin air. Also seen in brains of those riding the wave of other flow state activities — writing a novel, composing a symphony, freestyle dancing, conversing for hours on end with an amazing first date — we looked at the brain during this unrehearsed, effortless, improvisational brilliance.

The provocative and counterintuitive finding was that during these moments of effortless flow, key regions of the brain actually shut-down. Areas of your brain responsible for executive function and self-monitoring show little to no activity. It is only when we are cognitively disinhibited that we are most creative, in the zone, and perhaps, optimally dateable.

“During improv, the brain deactivates the area involved in self-censoring, while cranking up the region linked with self-expression. Essentially, a musician shuts down his inhibitions and lets his inner voice shine through.”   -Charles Limb

And what is a first date if not a very long improv session that encourages you to mind your table manners? Getting to know someone is an un-choreographed dance requiring you to intelligently move and adapt to a changing beat, unpredictable circumstances, and unknown variables. A new brain, a new body, a completely new energetic space. And if you don’t learn to predict the next step, you’ll likely end up in bed with Netflix. The only tools in your arsenal are wits, cognitive flexibility, and creative improvised reactions. There’s no solid, premeditated response to, “let’s split the check.”

To tap into the most inspired version of yourself in life, or on a date, science says you need to shut off your inhibitions. So what’s the brain’s biggest inhibitor? Look to the prefrontal cortex.

Prefrontal Cortex and Perfection | The Brain as Your Critic

The prefrontal cortex, an area hugely responsible for the complexity of humans and the advancement of our species, is also the source of nagging self-criticism, the self-conscious internal monologue that admonishes and criticizes, Don’t be awkward. Be funny. Oh, and mysterious too. Hair flip. God, too much hair flip. 

Our prefrontal cortex launches into overdrive in environments that require self-monitoring — when we’re on a job interview, editing a paper, or on a first date. This turbocharged prefrontal cortex activation suppresses new, generative impulses and majorly inhibits our thoughts and actions, fueling feelings of discomfort and hyper-awareness of our behavior and environment. You can kiss those sassy first date quips goodbye.

Unfortunately, this inhibited, self-monitoring phenomenon is “particularly pronounced for individuals with high sensitivity to what other’s think of them and low ability to adapt to these expectations,” as indicated by a creative object-naming study (De Vet 2007). Which is likely why your overly confident, somewhat egotistic friends are more likely to have enviously fun and spontaneous first dates than their modest and understated counterparts.

The experiment found that subjects asked to generate responses “out loud” versus “in silence” provided significantly less creative responses. Why? Because participants self-monitored when they felt perceived peer judgement. Despite Ed Sheeran’s romantic musings on “thinking out loud,” it appears that thinking out loud combined with a self-conscious personality will close the faucet on that clever conversation.

But what if we could remove this inhibition? A redeeming job perk for neuroscientists is they get to play with futuristic, brain-controlling toys, like transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS). In other words, a device that electrocutes the brain. By delivering a charge to a particular area of the brain, you can temporarily — and safely — shut it off.

When scientists zapped subjects’ left prefrontal cortex during a creative naming task that required them to come up with an imaginative function for an every day object, thereby removing inhibition, participants generated more creative uses and had significantly faster responses than the control group with full use of their left prefrontal cortex (Chrysikou, 2013). This is further indication that the most creative and interesting version of yourself emerges when you shut down the prefrontal cortex.

So how do we life hack our way into an uninhibited date? How do we set up conditions to be the most charming partner according to neuroscience? I’ll volunteer my dating history as a case study. 

Shut It Down to Turn It On | Dating as a Rap Battle

When I dig through my mental trove of dates and assign labels of good or bad, fun or boring, success or (epic) failure, there is a direct correlation between positive romantic experiences and the degree to which I self-monitored. The degree to which I was comfortable. The more I was inhibited, the worse the date.

It seems to be a universal truth that we self-monitor around the people we most want to impress, which explains why our best dates don’t always happen with people we’re most attracted to. My instant connections and most alive interactions don’t happen when I really want to make it work or am intensely focused on impressing someone. I almost never find someone on the put-on-heels-and-let’s-find-a-guy night, but seem to consistently, accidentally find someone in the let’s-do-Jessica, stretchy pants, Sunday morning mindset.

In fact, I believe there is a negative correlation between instances of successful courting and occasions when I brush my hair. 

Instead, I’ve found these clever conversations in the line at Whole Foods, the no make-up yoga classes, the dinner out with mom, the coffee shop writing routine. Consistently, I’m most dateable and apparently charming when, 1.) My guard is down, 2.) I’m doing something I enjoy, 3.) I’m in a comfortable and familiar environment, and 4.) My primary intention isn’t to impress anyone.

Essentially, I’m most dateable when I’m cognitively disinhibited. When I’m in a flow state, or at least, in an environment low in judgement, deliberate effort, and self-monitoring. This likely explains the old adage, You’ll find love when you’re not looking. You’ll find it when you least expect it. 

As suggested by science, and supported by my colorful dating history, your ability to creatively and intuitively connect to the rhythm of a unexpected task, like bonding with a new partner, is tied to relatively high comfort, minimal perceived pressure, and low personal inhibition. From a neuropsychological perspective, the less a date feels like a deliberate, strategic, and planned effort, the more you can tap into the creative and charming sides of your persona.

The lesson here? Less is more. Loosen up. Don’t try so hard. Find a bit of flow. And in the words of T Swift, do your best to shake it off. 

Romance won’t be far behind. 

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