In the digital dating world that we live today, flirting is an old way of interacting with the opposite sex.
Flirting can be challenging to some people because it’s a fear leftover survival instinct from our days as hunters and gatherers.
In other words, humans flirt, in part, to convey: “I’m harmless. I’m not trying to kill you or steal your food. I just want to hang out some more.” But this is why flirting can be tricky—at its core, it’s a fragile negotiation. Don’t show enough interest, you may not get noticed. Show too much interest, the other human remains fearful.
The brain’s amygdala is part of a larger system called the “limbic system”—sometimes referred to as the “limbic reward system”—which controls not only fear, but pleasure. It also drives our desires for things like food, sex, and love—and it’s highly involved in addiction.
When we’re attracted to someone, as we move past the fear of stranger danger, other parts of the limbic system kick in. Our brain releases dopamine, a feel-good hormone and neurotransmitter associated with euphoria, to encourage us to keep going.
Suddenly, the pleasure we feel (and crave) outweighs the fear, and our bodies start sending nonverbal messages to signal our interest—and seek reward—from our flirting partner.
The anterior cingulate cortex—the part of the brain that feels rejection—helps keep that shield up. It knows that getting turned down is a real possibility, which is why a little part of your brain still says proceed with caution.
Flirting is a continuous balancing act between diving in, but not too far—which is why knowing and recognizing the signals is key to success.
Eye contact is received by the brain’s vision center. Next, the sensory impressions created travel to the hypothalamus, a region of the brain involved in sexual behavior. (One of its many jobs is to regulate hormones, including “love hormone” oxytocin.) This process can then lead to feelings of sexual arousal, according to work done by neuroscientist Simon LeVay.
That’s just one way the hypothalamus is involved in flirting. In times of uncertainty—for example, when you meet someone new you really like—it can also trigger the sympathetic nervous system, which in turn causes your heart to race, your palms to sweat, your blood pressure to rise, and your cheeks to flush. Clearly, not all natural responses to flirting are sexy, per se, but they can still be indicators of interest.
Another cue is mirroring (or “isopraxism,” in science speak), in which two people subconsciously make similar, if not identical, movements. Givens explains that when he’s observed people flirting in coffee shops and bars (also known as “field work”), slowly but surely, their bodies start to mimic each other, “because safe is same and same is safe.”
For example, both people will sip water at the same time, or lean-to their right within seconds of each other, or rest a palm on their face in near unison. This mimicry is a sign of admiration, interest, and reassurance.
Flirting is a precarious ritual—a delicate balance between fear and attraction that is key to helping our brains and bodies decide if we want to pursue a sexual relationship.
So next time you are out and you’re too nervous to say something clever and you want to approach someone—don’t blame your lack of confidence, blame your sympathetic nervous system. And try to relax into it. Humans have been doing it for millennia—and you can, too.