There are probably more books written, more movies made, and more opinions offered about love and relationships than just about anything else. From poets to scientists, everyone chimes in with an opinion. “Love is blind,” proclaims Chaucer, the poet, and Albert Einstein adds the warning, “You can’t blame gravity for falling in love”.
“Why, tell me why, do we fall in lo-ove?” goes the song, Do Fools Fall in Love?, first sung in 1956 by Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers (quite appropriate for the subject matter), further popularized by the Beach Boys in 1964, sung by Diana Ross in 1981, Missy Elliott in 1998, and The Overtones in 2010. That tells you something right there, doesn’t it? And the answer to the question posed by the song: a resounding yes, fools indeed fall in love.
No wonder we are obsessed with the subject. Fortunately, we are learning more about exactly what happens in the brain to explain our desire to meet, mate, and marry. One angle that explores the source of our obsession comes from anthropologist, Helen Fisher, who has been studying romantic love for thirty-five years and has most recently been a consultant for Match.com.
If you are interested in examining love from the point of view of both brain science and cultural anthropology, then you may be intrigued by the book, Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love. The book’s author, Helen Fisher is a research professor in the Department of Anthropology at Rutgers University, and her work has examined marriage and divorce in 58 societies, adultery in 42 cultures, patterns of monogamy and desertion in birds and mammals, and gender differences in the brain and behavior.
At the core of her theory is the scientific study of three very different operating systems in the brain. Fisher’s work explores the chemical basis of love. from research conducted on subjects whose brains were scanned using functional MRI’s. The scans pinpointed the different effects of specific chemicals like dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin, proving that much of our romantic behavior is hard-wired. (Check out her great TED talk on “The Brain in Love” to get a closer look).
The first “operating system” affecting our relationships rules and causes our sex drive. This drive is mostly controlled by testosterone, in both males and females, and evolved in order to ensure the survival and reproductive success of our species. The intense craving for this hungry love is strongest during the childbearing years, diminishing as levels of testosterone gradually lower with age.
As most of us know, you can feel lust towards unavailable partners and inappropriate choices. This drive is very impersonal and very physical. When testosterone is high, it can be as uncomfortable or painful as deep hunger.
The second system, which drives our need for romantic love, is caused by an increase in dopamine, stimulating the pleasure centers in the brain. Although people often think of love as an emotion, when dopamine goes up, it feels more like an addiction, stimulating the same reaction as a rush of cocaine. People in love describe thinking about their beloved 24/7 and constant craving to be with that person.
But did you know that when people are in this early phase of increasing interest and infatuation, they have a decrease in serotonin? No wonder this stage is so intense and perhaps why we call it falling in love. It is well known that increased levels of serotonin are correlated with a sense of serenity, good moods, and an ability to inhibit behavior. So even though you might think that falling in love would make us happy (and raise serotonin), this is not what happens in the brain.
During this stage of falling for someone, our moods are highly unstable–like someone suffering from an anxiety disorder. We are happy when things are going well and unhappy when they are not. We might even feel a bit bipolar. The drop in serotonin also helps explain our wild inability to control our thoughts during this intensely emotional stage. (Serotonin is also low in people who suffer from obsessive compulsive disorder). It is both confirming and almost a relief to know why love can so easily mimic an addiction.
Why, you might ask, was the brain wired to make falling in love so much like an addiction? Evolutionary biologists suggest that this operating system helped humans to stop lusting for all nearby two-leggeds in order to narrow the focus of attention to one potential mate. Because human babies need care and protection for much longer than most animals, the bond of the parents needs to be intense.
This leads us to the third operating system in the brain which fosters attachment or bonding, modulated mostly by the increase in two hormones, vasopressin and oxytocin. These neurotransmitters are responsible for creating pleasurable sensations, specifically the feelings of calm and security, and help us develop deep and lasting bonds with our loved ones.
After the pain, the craving, and the turbulence of the first two stages has subsided–assuming you are still with the person you fell in love with–the brain helps us form attachments with our beloved. Just as parents feels empathy, compassion and a sense of protectiveness towards their children (even their adult children), so too this same kind of bond evolves with our mates. This is why people often describe even partners they have divorced as “family” and why many happily married adults describe their partner as their best friend.
Mother Nature designed our brains with intricate design. The mystery of it all is still unfolding.