Paging doctor love

Researching our favorite addiction

Written by Jennifer Hanson
There’s no shortage of research on sex, desire and how both of these are inherently connected, but what about evidence-based research on love? Dr. Helen Fisher fills in that gap and gives us a new spin: how your brain reacts in love, over time and through rejection. The heartwarming part? Humans are all very much the same in these ways despite their vast differences. Using MRI scans to expose these feelings in a tangible way, Dr. Fisher’s research illuminates these similarities.

Hard-wired passion

As Dr. Fisher reveals in her TED talk, all civilizations studied by anthropologists have shown evidence of romantic love. Arguably, no matter the cultural differences between societies, love is one of the common threads that links us together. Men tend to achieve intimacy and bonding through side-to-side activities, while women tend to achieve intimacy by face-to-face talking. While these behaviors came about through different evolutionary needs, we’ve spent forever figuring out how to connect. Intimacy lays the groundwork for you and your partner to fully connect and share your deepest feelings, and this is a core need for being passionate.
In a study examining passion, participants were evaluated using both a questionnaire and brain scans taken while looking at a photo of their partner. The results showed that associated brain activity mirrored their answers in the questionnaire, revealing some insights about their truthfulness when comparing both psychological and physiological data. They were telling the truth, and in most cases, their passion was high! This study was eventually replicated to include rejection and long-term relationships as well.
Many participants in Dr. Fisher’s studies have had MRI scans to see which areas of their brains activate when thinking of a partner. These people range from new lovers, to rejected ones, to people still in love after ten plus years of marriage.
In all cases, activity was high in the Ventral Tegmental Area (VTA), which is primarily responsible for dopamine production and distribution. This makes it easy to see why falling in love feels so good! The VTA is part of the reptilian brain, so it functions underneath day-to-day conscious thought. It’s also part of the brain’s complex reward system that controls wanting, focus, craving and motivation.
Love being a drug isn’t just an overused cliche, either. The VTA is the same part of the brain that becomes active during a cocaine high. There is also proof through comparison that these responses are not just unique to American life, but are shared and reflected around the world. While cultural differences account for a slight change in our response in some cases, the overall effect still stands.
For this reason and others, love can be seen as an addiction because of the constant need for more gratification. There are good and bad sides to this. When you’re receiving love, you’re building a tolerance to it. Once it goes away, you go into withdrawal and ultimately relapse to repeat the cycle. This is even more profound in cases of rejection, where this cycle is (unfortunately) strengthened.

Life without love

Since romantic love can be categorized as an obsession, it’s no wonder this obsession can get seriously worse when suffering a breakup. Three parts of the brain are stimulated through rejection: your reward system mentioned above becomes more active when that person is gone. You might be motivated and focused on risking anything to get them back. Areas of the brain associated with deep attachment are very active as well, since you’re experiencing a profound loss after a breakup. This makes you express feelings of romantic love and deep attachment. Lastly, the calculation part of the brain is stimulated as well, since you’re trying to figure out what went wrong and what you’ve lost as a result.
Fisher’s study on rejection included scanning the brains of 30 young and recently-rejected men and women. Many of these people were about two months out of their breakup and unsurprisingly not exactly in control of their emotions. The results were surprising. Breakups in your brain can be likened to experiencing withdrawal from cocaine or grueling physical pain! Heartbreak is genuinely painful, and the data backs it up.
The good news? Not all people are out of luck in love. There are plenty of examples throughout Dr. Fisher’s work of seriously in-love married couples as well!

Long-term love

One of the most heartwarming results from her study on married participants is that they weren’t lying about being in love! The same areas of the brain stimulated in younger couples were also stimulated in the same way after ten to 25 years of being together. Love tends to shift from passionate love to companionate love around the two-year mark. While this changes things slightly, it’s clear that these changes don’t necessarily mean falling out of love.
There is also evidence that different regions of the brain become active depending on how long you’ve been in love with your partner. This is linked with higher thinking processes, since men tend to activate in more visual areas, while women tend to activate in areas associated with memory. This same study showed that no matter your gender or sexual orientation, the brain scans are nearly identical.
A relevant study conducted by Coral advisor Dr. Kristen Mark revealed that sexual desire is more important than romance in determining quality of sexual encounters between partners. This desire aspect is crucial for staying passionate about your partner, since great relationships stem from great sex. Sex is inherently involved in love, but it’s not clear yet if there’s a one-size solution for all couples.

Scientific predictions

There have been long-standing questions of how people find their ideal partner, and Dr. Fisher thinks she may have the key to finding some answers. Studies have shown that people are usually drawn to other people of the same socioeconomic background, level of intelligence, religion and attractiveness, but how does that dictate who exactly you fall in love with? There is debate that childhood plays a role, but there aren’t a lot of clear answers as to how.
In an attempt to answer this question, Dr. Fisher developed a questionnaire in conjunction with She broke the answers down into four ways of showing love associated with different chemicals in the brain. These different methods are revealing and may show who chooses to love whom. More than 3.7 million people have taken this questionnaire in America, so it will be interesting to see why and what brain mechanism ultimately pulls someone to another person.
Similar research has been conducted already. These results indicate that brain activity drastically changes over a four-year relationship, but how your brain responds in the early stages of romantic love can actually predict relationship stability and quality 40 months later. The essential conclusions were: criticize your partner less and compliment them more; have a high level of relationship satisfaction and commitment; and put your partners' needs first.
Although humans have different ways of expressing themselves, the research is in: we’re all relatively the same in how we feel love and cope with rejection. Dr. Fisher’s research presents interesting new viewpoints that reveal even more about the brain in love than we could have imagined. These perspectives provide new questions to ponder, and further confirm that love is a force to be reckoned with.

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