Helen Fisher from Rutgers University is the love guru! I’ve shared a couple of her TED Talks and have read some of her original papers on the topic of love as well as seeing her cited all over the place. She and her colleagues have identified three phases of love each with their own separate processes and chemistry which might help us understand why sometimes love stops us from eating and sleeping, goodness, sometimes it simply stops us from thinking straight!
Arthur Aron, a psychologist in New York and author of our favourite 36 questions, has said that on average, a person’s brain takes between 90 seconds and four minutes to determine whether it’s love struck or not. Apparently, 55% of this information is derived from the movements and body language of the object of our desires – did our brain receive a messages of love from the other person? Thirty-eight percent of the decision comes from the voice of our target, its tone and changes in frequency. The final seven percent is a reaction to our lover’s choice of words.
This clearly must occur in the first phase posited by Fisher – The Lust Phase.
The drugs: testosterone (responsible for our libidos) and oestrogen produced by the hypothalamus, a structure located deep within the brain, linking the nervous and endocrine systems.
Lust is all about sexual gratification based on our need to reproduce for the survival of the species.
Evolutionary psychologists have decided that love is very much a survival skill and hypothesise that we subconsciously choose mates based on their health status and the likely components of their immune systems! Romantic hey?
For example, we are more likely to choose healthy looking mates. Women with a 70% waist-to-hip ratio have been shown to have higher levels of fertility and of course, the waist-to-hip ratio aids childbirth. Men with rugged features are apparently billboards for high testosterone levels which is linked to a strong immune system.
One study using the scents of men’s t-shirts showed that women are more likely to select a man with a genotype different to hers which they hypothesised is linked to selecting an immune system that possesses something that hers doesn’t, leading to more robust offspring.
It gets worse! When our sexual arousal is turned on, the wise parts of our brain shut down! Parts of our prefrontal cortex that control our critical thinking, our judgement, self-awareness and rational behaviours – all gone! Love really is blind!
Attraction is the phase when we start to feel love for someone. It also secures a connection (or at least an attempt!) with the object of our desire in order to bond.
Sarah Gehrke in her article “Why We Fall in Love: The Science of Love” said it best: “Actually, falling in love is getting in a beautiful trap set up by nature, a natural occurrence we cannot fight.”
The Phase II chemicals include the almighty dopamine which is also produced by the hypothalamus whenever we do things that make us feel good – it’s a huge part of our reward system. Norepinephrine is also heavily involved in the attraction phase but oddly, due to its role in our stress response which also sees an increase in adrenalin and cortisol, another stress hormone. The third and final culprit is serotonin, which lowers in levels when dopamine and norepinephrine are activated, impacting significantly on our appetite – it disappears – and on our mood.
In general, with the interplay between all three of the aforementioned chemicals we experience surges in energy, we need less sleep, we can’t eat and our attention becomes incredibly focussed as we hone in on the object of our desires.
In fact, so focussed is that attention, it’s been compared to the obsessiveness of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) which shows similarly low levels of serotonin.
This phase can last weeks to months and is all consuming – heaven help us! We don’t stand a chance.
We’re so giddy, energetic and euphoric, it’s exactly the same as an addiction. In fact, research has shown that the same reward centres in our brain light up when we’re in love, or when we take cocaine, or indulge in some other addictive behaviour like binge eating.
The happiness we feel when we are in love can fluctuate between being unbearable and indescribable!
In this phase, we become addicted to another person! Which makes sense when you think about the withdrawal, physical and painful, we experience when we crave the company of a person we can’t see.
Being love struck can be downright hideous and so, so wonderful all at once. Any wonder it’s addictive!
One other chemical that is abundant in the first twelve months of love is called nerve growth factor (NGF). Higher levels of NGF correlate with higher intensity of love feelings which also correlates with higher levels of cortisol which explain the ‘rush’ that we get when we are falling in love.
Some good news though is that our pesky amygdala, that of Fight/Flight Response fame, becomes deactivated in romantic love!
In summary, the combination of feeling euphoric, suspension of judgement and the disappearance of fear can lead to states that otherwise might be interpreted as madness!
But as Nietszche once said, “There is always some madness in love. But there is always some reason in madness.”
The third phase, attachment, occurs in long-term relationships. This phase is important not only in romantic love, but in friendships, parent-infant bonding and other intimacies.
The active chemicals in attachment includes oxytocin - ‘the cuddle hormone’ – and vasopressin, which are released by the pituitary gland into the blood system during sex, breast-feeding and childbirth. This pituitary gland action is directed once again by the hypothalamus, however it’s interesting to note that the hypothalamus is only involved in romantic feelings and sexual arousal, not in maternal love.
Oxytocin and vasopressin are all about bonding.
Vasopressin has been linked to interpersonal functioning, larger social networks, more attachment security, relationship support and maintenance and less negative communication.
So how can we get more of these chemicals?
Fisher recommends more touching. Engaging in more hugging, massages and of course love-making will all stimulate oxytocin levels which also enhances the attachment to our partner.
Doing new things together will have a similar impact and stimulate feelings of attraction.
Here’s a fun tip (and I hope I’m getting this right) but because our amygdala shuts down and we are less likely to feel fear when we are falling in love, our brain will be more likely to interpret things like an increase in heart rate as attraction/excitement as opposed to fear. One study showed that if you jogged in place to elevate your heart rate and then looked at someone, you were more likely to think they’re attractive! Good luck at the gym!
So why doesn’t passionate love last?
Well, one reason might be that we would never get anything done if we stayed in that Attraction phase forever! We’d never sleep or eat and we’d just want to follow our lover around all day every day!
Fisher suggests that many relationships experience the four year itch/break up because that’s as long as it takes to get a child through infancy. Once the child is safe and less dependent, the partners can go off to mate and reproduce with other people! How’s that for a modern day concept?
The other issues involve long-term exposure to chemicals like dopamine. Would we build a tolerance to it like we do to drugs like cocaine? Probably. And like any long-term drug use, its likely to lead to psychological problems.
Well, I hope you’ve learned something about the psychology of love. It sure answered a lot of questions for me, although I’m not sure what I can actually do with my new found knowledge! I think the next topic I will tackle will be marriage – in particular the differences between love marriages and arranged marriages. If anyone knows anyone who’d be willing to be interviewed about this topic, please message me.
Let’s all have a great Christmas break and you’ll hear from me again in the New Year. Stay safe Village! X
Burkett, J. P., & Young, L. J. (2012). The behavioural, anatomical and pharmacological parallels between social attachment, love and addiction. Psychopharmacology, 224(1), pp 1 – 26.
Fisher, H., Aron, A., & Brown, L. L. (2005). Romantic Love: An fMRI Study of a Neural Mechanism for Mate Choice. The Journal of Comparative Neurology, 493, pp 58 – 62.
Gehrke, S. Why We Fall in Love: The Science of Love. Retrieved from https://examinedscience.com/why-we-fall-in-love-the-science-of-love/
Goulin, J-P. et al. (2010). Marital Behaviour, Oxytocin, Vasopressin, and Wound Healing. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 35(7): 1082 – 1090.
Slater, L. (2006). Love. National Geographic Magazine. Retrieved from http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/print/2006/02/true-love/slater-text
Wu, K. (2017). Love, Actually: The science behind lust, attraction, and companionship. Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Science. Science in the News.
Zeki, S. (2007). The neurobiology of love. Federation of European Biochemical Societies, 581, pp 2675 – 2579.