The science of falling in love

By: Julie Ovenell-Carter

Author: Canadian Living


The science of falling in love

By: Julie Ovenell-Carter
This story was originally titled "The Science of Falling in Love," in the February 2008 issue. Subscribe to Canadian Living today and never miss an issue!

"He's a steely-eyed sniper perched on the roof of a skyscraper high above a nameless city, the half-eaten doughnut and pack of smokes at his side an indication of his patience when it comes to choosing a target. He slowly scans the ground below with binoculars, his weapon of choice resting across his lap. When he aims, he won't miss."

Not a random occurrance
Ian Falconer's delightful rendering of Cupid-as-a-madman for a February 1999 cover of The New Yorker magazine tells you everything you need to know about the giddy business of falling in love: It's going to hit, it's going to hurt, and the odds of a full recovery are anyone’s guess.

Love arrives like a bolt out of the blue – or so it seems. But over the last decade, there has been mounting evidence to suggest that romantic love is not a random occurrence; rather, the seeds of passion and commitment are sewn into our DNA, nurtured by environment and upbringing and brought to flower by brain chemistry. Science is replacing the romance of romance with compelling theories that explain not only how and why we fall in love, but also with whom, and for how long.

Once upon a time
"At his touch, she experienced the strangest sense of weakness. He had the kind of energy that would carry a person with it whether she wanted to go or not."
Speed Dating (Harlequin, 2007) by Nancy Warren

In romance novels it's called "the meet" – the moment when the male and female protagonists first lay eyes (or hands) on each other and feel the undeniable spark of sexual chemistry. But its baser name is lust, and according to Helen Fisher, an anthropologist and author of Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love (Henry Holt, 2004), it is one of "three primordial brain networks [lust, romantic love and male-female attachment] that evolved to direct mating and reproduction."

Lust – the craving for sexual gratification – motivated our ancestors to seek sexual union with almost any partner. Romantic love – the elation and obsession of being in love – enabled them to focus courtship attentions on one individual at a time. And male-female attachment – the feeling of calm, peace and security one often has with a long-term mate – motivated our ancestors to love this partner long enough to rear their young together.

The trouble with these brain networks is that they work independently, meaning that lust can muscle its way into even the most happily married mind. And base desire clearly spans the decades. Here is a description by a 58-year-old married Vancouver woman who was recently reacquainted with her first love at their high school reunion: "It was as if 40 years had never happened. When we danced our first dance, the electrical charge could have set fire to the floor between us – not that there was any room between us. We actually jumped back from each other for a moment as the spark cleared the air."

Page 1 of 5Butterflies
We're primed from an early age to experience that chemical zing of attraction with someone who fits what love researchers refer to as our "love maps," and what Fisher describes as "a catalogue of aptitudes and mannerisms based on a lifetime of experiences that define our romantic tastes."

Jim Pfaus, a professor of neuroscience in the department of psychology at Concordia University in Montreal, explains that each love map is unique. "Everyone has a different idea of what’s attractive," he says. In a little-understood process set up during puberty, we tend to identify a romantic archetype based on childhood experiences of affection and emotional intimacy that will cause us to respond to a certain set of characteristics. If, for example, you liked your dad, had a favourite uncle or a special teacher, you might be attracted to men with his hair colour, eye shape or sense of humour.

"We're like animals on the hunt ..."
When someone who fits our love map crosses our path, says Pfaus, our sympathetic nervous system kicks it up a notch. "We're going to get a bit of an adrenaline rush – the brain telling us, 'Attend to this; this could be pleasurable.'" With our pupils dilated and our hearts hammering, we are like animals on the hunt, preparing for sex and ready to pounce, says Pfaus. And we are helped in that mission by nature’s hormone of desire, testosterone – a "primordial chemical" that, according to Fisher, can swamp the thinking brain.

Lustful sex can be a natural high, to say the least: Among the many post-orgasmic chemical changes is an increase in the level of endogenous opioids, the body's natural equivalent to heroin. Pfaus says these chemical changes may contribute to a couple's bonding, but, as he wryly observes, lustful obsessions are not always wise ones. "The object of your desire could be an axe murderer, but what do you care? All you know is he tickled your fancy, he smells good and he has a nose like Dad's."

True love's first kiss
"She leaned into him, loving the feel of him, the warm, muscular body, the smell of laundry soap and shampoo. The scent of his skin. He rubbed her back in a gesture that was comforting and that left her yearning for more. Somehow they'd become friends, but she didn't want to be his friend. She wanted his love."
Speed Dating

It's only when we begin to home in on a particular mate that we begin to experience romantic love, the moony can't-eat-can't-sleep-for-thoughts-of-your-beloved phase that shares behavioural and neurochemical characteristics of obsessive-compulsive disorder and even addiction.

Page 2 of 5That spark
Beth Dobson, an engineering student at the University of British Columbia, has been happily besotted with Mario since they met at a Red Cross symposium in high school more than two years ago, and they are the poster couple for obsessive, passionate love. They live several hours from each other but speak on the phone daily and visit every weekend by Greyhound bus.

"I can't wait to see or speak to Mario. I look forward to it all day, to tell him about my day, to hear his opinion, to hold him," says Beth. Sometimes she even speaks to him when he's not there. "I daydream about him. He's always on my mind. You know how you have that internal monologue always going on in your mind? Well, now I'm not having that discussion with myself, I'm having it with Mario."

Fisher and other love researchers have had a field day studying the love-struck brains of young people, such as Beth and Mario, who, they have hypothesized, are under the influence of a powerful chemical cocktail. To date, Fisher’s research has confirmed that love stimulates the central part of the reward circuitry of the brain, a "motherlode for dopamine-making cells," she says, which produces focused attention, fierce energy, concentrated motivation to attain a reward and feelings of elation, even mania – the core feelings of romantic love.

Even though she hasn't proved it, she believes increased levels of norepinephrine, a chemical stimulant derived from dopamine, may also play a role because of its ability to produce feelings of exhilaration, sleeplessness and loss of appetite.

You're always on my mind
Fisher also theorizes that people in love fall victim to obsessive thinking about their beloved because they, like patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder, have lower levels of serotonin in their brains. "As levels of dopamine and norepinephrine climb, they can cause serotonin levels to plummet," she says. "This could explain why a lover's increasing romantic ecstasy actually intensifies the compulsion to daydream, ponder and obsess about a romantic partner."

And brain research out of the U.K. confirms that the love-bitten brain is active in the same centres that generate drug highs. So when Beth observes that she "craves" physical contact with her boyfriend, she isn't kidding; love is indeed addictive and uses the same neural mechanisms that are activated by drug dependency. "Addiction to drugs simply usurps the brain chemistry that's already there for falling in love," says Pfaus.

Though her love-saturated brain is out of chemical balance, Beth is unfazed. "I don't care if it never settles down!" she exclaims.

Page 3 of 5Happily ever after
"Kendall, I love you. I love our three kids who aren't even born yet. And I love that we'll have a great life together. Please, please marry me."
Speed Dating

Nancy Warren, a B.C. author of more than 30 sexy romance novels including Speed Dating, knows that love does settle down. Married for 22 years to a man she met when she was 19, Warren understands the way love changes with time; she describes her enduring love for her husband, Rick, as "the same as ever, only quieter."

For better or worse, the wild passion of early love is unsustainable – at least with the same person. Pfaus figures this is the lure of serial monogamy. "Some people get a rush out of the beginning and just keep trying to repeat it." For biological reasons that are not yet understood, emotional chaos eventually gives way to calm, and emotional security trumps sex.

This is what Fisher describes as the attachment stage of romance, when couples experience a "feeling of fusion with a long-term mate." Robert Sternberg, a psychologist from Yale University in New Haven, Conn., proposes in his triangular theory of love  that intimacy, passion and commitment are the essential (but varying) ingredients of every type of love relationship, further refining the category. He describes this attachment stage of coupledom as companionate love (intimacy plus commitment) or consummate love (intimacy, commitment plus passion). He calls long-term love that is based only on commitment empty love.

The urge to bond
Researchers point to prairie voles as evidence that the urge to bond with a partner is bred in bed and then in the brain. These mouselike rodents are one of only three per cent of mammal species (humans among them) that appear to form monogamous relationships. After an epic 48-hour mating ritual, some 90 per cent mate for life with a single partner. This behaviour is in marked contrast to their more promiscuous but genetically similar cousins, the montane voles, who mate and then move on.

Researchers have determined that prairie voles release two closely related "satisfaction" hormones, vasopressin and oxytocin, during copulation. But unlike the montane voles, prairie voles have more receptors for these hormones in particular centres of their brains, meaning that every time they couple they reinforce their attachment to their sex partner. Researchers such as Fisher and Pfaus believe these so-called cuddle chemicals, which are also released during human coupling, contribute to the delicious feeling of connectedness that follows loving sex.

Page 4 of 5Spicing things up
As human couples become more entwined and interdependent, hormones can affect their union in other ways. Most notable is the drop in the testosterone levels of deeply committed men and expectant fathers: even holding a baby can cause a man's testosterone levels to decrease. And though waning desire may be inevitable in a long-term romantic union, researchers are unanimous that it can be rekindled by playing what Fisher calls "a few tricks on the brain," including reigniting romantic longing by gazing into each other's eyes during face-to-face conversation, and stimulating the production of dopamine – the chemical associated with romantic love – by taking a vacation or engaging in exciting and novel activities together.

"Passion needs to be stoked," says Pfaus, the father of a four-year-old, who appreciates how hard it can be to play lover at the end of a long day of work and parenting. But here's the incentive: People in loving relationships tend to live longer, perhaps because la vie d'amour has strengthened their immune system, by mitigating the negative health impacts of the stress hormone, cortisol. "If struggle is the essence of life," says Pfaus, "then so is pleasure."

In addition, people who enjoy regular sex enjoy better cardiovascular health and age better. Pfaus points to studies that show people who make love three times a week or more appear to others to be about a decade younger than they really are. But Pfaus says the last word must go to Warren, who, as a writer of romance, knows more about human psychology than anyone.

"There's all kinds of research to prove that women who read romance have more sex," says Warren. "Every time you read a romance novel, it's like falling in love again. And by the end of every story, you're reminded again that true love does happen and it's worth working for."

How to make romance last
Helen Fisher, an anthropologist and author of Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love (Henry Holt, 2004), gives a list of suggestions for stoking love: commit; listen "actively" to your partner; ask questions; give answers; appreciate; stay attractive; keep growing intellectually; include him or her; give him or her privacy; be honest and trustworthy; tell your mate what you need; accept his or her shortcomings; mind your manners; exercise your sense of humour; respect him or her; compromise; argue constructively; never threaten to depart; forget the past; say no to adultery; don't assume the relationship will last forever – build it one day at a time; and never give up.

Read more: 10 tips to ignite the sexual fires.

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The science of falling in love