This is your brain on reality TV: Science meets ‘The Bachelor’

The first time “The Bachelorette” autoplayed into my life in 2013, I knew I was a goner. I had not sought out this show. It had chosen me, delivered by the whim of a Hulu algorithm and ensnaring me in its rosy grasp. As soon as I had begun watching the gentle-souled Desiree Hartsock set out in her quest to find The One, I was hooked.

I have enjoyed “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette” and even “Bachelor in Paradise” ever since stumbling upon Desiree’s season, but my pleasure in this show has always been accompanied by a bit of shame and a genuine worry: Was watching “The Bachelor” making me dumb? My head never feels more empty than at the end of an episode. Is this because the show sends me into a state of deep, meditative relaxation? Or does each rose ceremony carry off a dozen of my brain cells, never to return?

I recently set out to answer this question by having a brain scan while watching clips of “The Bachelor.” Functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, uses a powerful magnetic force to track the passage of blood on its merry quest around the human brain. By seeing what parts of the brain are awash in iron-rich oxygenated blood, you can see what regions are more active than others.

My colleague Anna Rothschild and I traveled to Indiana University at Bloomington, where two scientists agreed to clamp my head to a gurney and insert my immobile form into a whirring magnetic tube normally reserved for proper scientific inquiry.

This season’s Bachelor is Arie Luyendyk Jr., known only as Arie in this universe where youngish lovers pursue the dream of marital bliss without the hindrance of surnames. Arie is a deeply uncontroversial 37-year-old race-car driver turned real estate agent from Scottsdale, Arizona. He’s relatively handsome; if Arie were your accountant, for instance, you might tell your friends, “I have a surprisingly hot accountant.” In Bachelor Nation, however, all good citizens must suspend disbelief and agree that it is plausible – nay, natural – that such a man would be the focal point of the fierce romantic competition of 29 beautiful and charming women.

Any pseudo-experiment worth its salt requires a neutral control, so in addition to watching moments from “The Bachelor” meant to elicit strong emotions, I needed clips that were likely to inspire no feelings in me whatsoever. For that purpose, I selected three clips of Arie talking about his hopes and dreams, in all his perfect neutrality. The other clips were ones meant to induce feelings of empathy, vicarious embarrassment and intense dislike. For the latter, I chose the greatest moments of this season’s villain, the 29-year-old fitness coach Krystal, known for her ability to stretch the word “hiiyeeee” over three punishing seconds.

When it was time to receive the results of my scan, Sharlene Newman, a professor in the department of psychological and brain sciences at Indiana University at Bloomington, kindly explained that it would not actually be possible to…

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