The Science behind Love

Why does that special someone take up all the space in the room? Why is he or she always on our mind? Why do we fall in love? As Valentine’s Day is coming, up we have looked into the findings of Helen Fisher, biological anthropologist, to understand what happens in the brain when someone is in love.

We are born to love

“The god of love lives in the state of need,” states Fisher, quoting Plato. Over 1,000 years ago, he had not only expressed very well the feeling of want that can be associated with being in love, but he had actually sensed a biological phenomenon. Contrary to what we would naturally think, love is not an emotion or a feeling, it is a drive, a powerful motor we cannot live without.

By studying the brains of 100 people who were in love, Dr. Fisher and her team have found activity in a very small area near the base of the brain called the Ventral Tegmental Area (VTA). The VTA is situated in the most primitive part of the brain: the reptilian brain. It is the area responsible for our survival mechanisms such as thirst or hunger.

In other words, love is as essential as the most basic instincts we have to survive. Romantic love, Helen Fisher explains, is a motivation system “to win life’s greatest prize: a mating partner. Love is the basic mating drive.” Just imagine the consequences to the human race if no one felt feelings strong enough to want to reproduce with another human being. “We are born to love” ensures Helen Fisher.

It’s not you, it’s your brain

What exactly happens in the brain when we are in love? The VTA creates dopamine, a natural stimulant that fosters elation, focus, motivation and craving. It is the same region that is activated by drugs such as cocaine. This explains why rejection from a loved one or a simple unanswered message can turn into an excruciating obsession. “The system related to wanting and craving, becomes more active when you can’t get what you want,” affirms Helen Fisher. “Romantic love is an addiction. It can be great and it can be horrible,” she adds.

“Why we love, why we cheat”

Fisher and her team have identified three brain systems that orchestrate all the forms of love we can have: “Romantic love which enables you to focus your mating energy on just one partner at a time. The sex drive, located in another area of the brain not far from the reptilian area, which encourages you to seek a range of different partners. And attachment, located in the middle brain, which enables you to feel deep union to a person in the long run.”

In an interesting TED talk entitled “Why we love, why we cheat”, Fisher explains how these three brain mechanisms are separate: you could be deeply in love with someone, while having sex with other people, while feeling deep attachment for another. However, these mechanisms are also connected and each one can have important effects on the others. “When you fall in love, dopamine goes up in the brain, which triggers testosterone – linked to the sex drive – and suddenly everything he or she does is sexy. The opposite is true too. Casual sex and stimulation of the genitals can drive up the dopamine and you can fall in love. Orgasm can also drive up oxytocin and vasopressin and trigger feelings of attachment.”

Casual sex is not casual. Things are happening in the brain !

Love can last a lifetime

Even though the core primitive biological purpose of love is reproduction, there is no certified expiry date to love. People can stay in love long after their children have grown and gone to college. Dr. Fisher has studied the brains of people who said they were in love with the same person for over 15 years. And sure enough, in many cases, the areas of the brain associated to romantic love were still active!

On this note, Happy Valentine’s Day!

Follow Helen Fisher on Twitter : @DrHelenFisher

For Women in Science

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