A Neuropsychological Perspective on Falling in Love

Romantic love is one of the most powerful of all human universals. It is a drive that causes infatuation, intense emotions, and a strong desire to be with one’s partner. Neuroscience has recently become interested in studying love in the brain and -thanks to recent advances in research and the coming about of the functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) techniques - we are able to map the pathways that are activated in the human brain by conducting experiments.  Romantic love can be the source of much happiness. When faced with rejection, however, it also has the potential to be disappointing and even devastating. Romantic love has been studied widely in humans and it is seen to be a cross-cultural phenomenon, something that almost all humans can experience throughout their lives. But what happens in the brain when you are falling in love?

The Three Stages of Love

Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist who studies love, predicts that there are three different phases of love in your brain.

  • LUST: also known as the human sex drive that evolved to get one out there searching for a whole range of partners.
  • ROMANTIC/PASSIONATE LOVE: where one is infatuated and focused on another person, where this other person takes on special meaning, and one’s thoughts become obsessive about him/her.
  • ATTACHMENT: where levels of anxiety have subsided and where one might feel deeply connected with their partner, creating a lifelong bond.

These phases of love can all be felt for the same person at the same time, or they can be experienced completely independently from one another for different people (Fisher, 1998: 32). 

Romantic Love

The stage of romantic love is often characterized as the love that some call, “the honeymoon stage.” Individuals in this stage of love can show increased excitement and energy when things are going great with their partners and terrible mood swings in times of conflict. This is due to the fact that love affects much of the same areas of the brain that are affected during motivation and drive.  Love is an ancient reward system for humans. It has evolved to help us focus on a specific person so we can tolerate them long enough to have and raise our offspring.  It is important to understand, however, that this magical phenomenon of falling in love (the butterflies in one’s stomach, and the rollercoaster of emotions one goes through when they are in love) is all regulated by different endocrinal factors (A. de Boer et al., 2012: 114).

Helen Fisher and her colleagues became interested in the brain on love because of how devastating love can be. They decided to put seventeen people who were ‘madly in love” into an fMRI brain scanner trying to test two hypotheses.  First, they wanted to know if romantic love would involve subcortical dopaminergic pathways that rewards the human. Second, they wanted to know if love was a specific emotion or if it was a goal-directed behavior that led to many emotions (Fisher: 2005, 58-59). Ten women and seven men were recruited with an age range of 18-26 years old.  Each participant was interviewed individually to establish the intensity and duration of their romantic relationship. After these questionnaires and interviews, these participants’ brains were scanned for a particular set amount of time, as they took turns staring at a picture of their romantic partner and then staring at a picture of a neutral stranger whom they did not know.

These researchers found that activation that was specific to the beloved was found in several different regions of the brain. The right ventral tegmental area was one of the central parts where they found activation while looking at their romantic partner’s picture.  Remarkably, this same area of the brain is the central part of the brain’s reward system that is activated during arousal, focused attention, and the motivation to acquire rewards. Although Fisher and her colleagues used a small sample of 17 people, who were all heterosexual, of a similar age, and similar background, their hypothesis holds true, that love is a part of a bigger reward system in the brain that causes one to feel a whole array of emotions. Love is not a basic emotion but instead serves to reward the individual to get them to form attachments to their partners, to help them survive, and to help them ultimately reproduce (Fisher: 2005, 58-59).

Neurotransmitters

Neurotransmitters and hormones like dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, vasopressin, and testosterone also play a huge role in the range of feelings we experience throughout romantic love (A. de Boer, et al., 2012: 120).

Dopamine, being one of the neurotransmitters that we often hear about is responsible for anything that is a rewarding feelings you might experience after eating or having sex. Dopamine provides us with a rush of chemicals to our brain that signals to our bodies that the behavior we are doing is fitness enhancing. At the same time, dopamine makes us feel good, giving us an incentive to repeat our behavior in the future. The release of dopamine is increased when people fall in love. Moreover, the more novel things they do with their loved ones, the more dopamine they experience.

Serotonin is also involved in romantic love. It is usually responsible for feelings of well-being, the regulation of our mood, anxiety, appetite, and sleep are suppressed (A. de Boer, et al., 2012: 120). In romantic love, levels of serotonin are suppressed. Moreover, suppressed serotonin levels are also found in people who suffer from anxiety disorders like obsessive-compulsive disorder (A. de Boer, et al., 2012: 121). Scientists believe that this demonstrates why people who are in love continuously feel obsessed and completely infatuated with their partner.  They might need to call or text their partners to talk to them multiple times a day.  People in love might also experience an inability to sleep and a loss of appetite, as well due to suppressed serotonin levels and increased dopamine (A. de Boer, et al., 2012: 121).

Oxytocin also plays a major role in romantic love, as it is known as the bonding hormone. Oxytocin is also responsibility for feelings of trust, attachment during childbirth and childhood, empathetic behavior, and is even released after orgasm. Oxytocin is also released from   and serves to help foster and maintain social bonds.

Through the combination of all these chemicals, we become addicted to the rush of dopamine that we get when we see our partners, we crave seeing them more and more, and we refuse to be separated from them.

Romantic love has been around for thousands of years.  It has evolved over many generations to motivate reproduction. It is experienced in different cultures in different ways; however, at its most basic level it serves to form strong bonds and connections between two people.

Last Updated 26 September 2013

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