What Happens to Your Brain on a First Date? A Neuroscientist Explains the Rollercoaster Ride

More bubbling chemicals than a meth lab

your brain on a first date: illustration of a brain with hearts inside it
Aleksandr-mansurov-ru/Getty Images

You’ve gotten yourself out of bed, arranged a meet-up and selected an outfit that signals “attractive but not trying too hard.” This first date should be a piece of cake, right? And yet: So. Many. Feelings. From butterflies in your stomach to a dizzy sense of anticipation, first dates can be a real mixed bag of sensation, from what feels like muted anxiety to blazing lust. In the interest of better understanding the chain of biological responses to dating, we consulted a brain science expert to detail just what’s going on in the body as you Waze toward the bistro and take a few moments for square breathing in the car before greeting that person who just might rock your world.

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Meet the Expert

  • Dr. Sanam Hafeez, Psy.D, is an NYC-based neuropsychologist and school psychologist.  She is also the founder and director of Comprehensive Consultation Psychological Services, P.C. Hafeez graduated from Queens College, CUNY, with a BA in psychology, and then went on to earn her Master of Science in Psychology at Hofstra University. Hafeez provides neuropsychological educational and developmental evaluations in her practice and also works with children and adults who suffer from PTSD, learning disabilities, autism, attention and memory problems, trauma and brain injury, abuse, childhood development and psychopathology.

PureWow: On a First Date, What Brain Regions Are Activated?

Sanam Hafeez: When you're heading out on a first date, your brain kicks into high gear, processing all sorts of thoughts and emotions. The parts of your brain that really light up include the paracingulate cortex, which helps you pay attention, especially to social cues and potential conflicts. Then there's the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which is like your emotional center, helping you navigate those butterflies in your stomach and make sense of your feelings. The rostromedial prefrontal cortex is also crucial, helping you decide what to say, how to act, and even interpreting the subtle signals your date might be sending. 

PW: Where Does That Woozy/Fluttery Sensation Come From?

SH: When we're drawn to someone or feeling romantic, the ventral tegmental area(VTA) releases dopamine, the feel-good neurotransmitter, creating that fluttery sensation. The nucleus accumbens(NAcc), often dubbed the brain's pleasure center, processes these signals, reinforcing our attraction and romantic inclinations. Together, they form a neural feedback loop, making us crave more of those delightful experiences. So, when we say love is like a drug, we're not far off—the brain's reward system is hard at work, keeping us hooked on those sweet feelings of attraction and romance.

PW: Ah, Dopamine….Please Say More About the Effects of All These Brain Chemicals

SH: Some of the brain chemicals released include:

  • Dopamine: Dopamine is often associated with pleasure, reward and motivation. On a first date, dopamine can be released when we experience something enjoyable or exciting, like engaging conversation, laughter or physical attraction.
  • Norepinephrine: During a first date, norepinephrine levels may increase due to the excitement and anticipation of meeting someone new, leading to heightened awareness and energy.
  • Serotonin: Serotonin is produced in the raphe nuclei of the brainstem. It regulates mood, social behavior and feelings of well-being. While serotonin may not be as directly implicated in the initial stages of attraction, it can influence mood and overall sense of contentment, potentially enhancing the enjoyment of a first date.
  • Oxytocin: During a first date, activities such as eye contact, physical touch or intimate conversation can trigger the release of oxytocin, fostering feelings of connection and closeness.
  • Vasopressin: Vasopressin may contribute to feelings of attachment and closeness during and after a first date, especially if there is a potential for a deeper connection.

PW: Okay, But What Happens on a Not-Great Date?

SH: If the date starts off awkwardly or uncomfortably, it may trigger feelings of anxiety or stress, leading to elevated levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. Mismatched expectations or lack of chemistry can lead to disappointment or frustration, potentially activating brain regions associated with negative emotions, such as the amygdala. Finally, limited engagement or lack of meaningful conversation may fail to stimulate the release of oxytocin and dopamine, resulting in a lack of emotional connection and enjoyment.

PW: Womp, Womp. But Let’s End on a High Note…Give Us a Snapshot of the Date That’s Got ‘Good Chemistry’

SH: Before the date, anticipation and excitement may lead to increased dopamine and norepinephrine levels, contributing to feelings of eagerness and energy. Upon meeting, positive interactions such as smiling, eye contact and engaging conversation can trigger the release of oxytocin and dopamine, fostering feelings of connection and pleasure. As the date progresses, shared laughter, common interests, and physical touch can further stimulate the release of oxytocin and dopamine, deepening the sense of bonding and enjoyment.

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dana dickey

Senior Editor

Dana Dickey is a PureWow Senior Editor, and during more than a decade in digital media, she has scoped out and tested top products and services across the lifestyle space...