"Love is an untamed force. When we try to control it, it destroys us. When we try to imprison it, it enslaves us. When we try to understand it, it leaves us feeling lost and confused."
This striking quote from Paulo Coelho presents us with a challenge: how can we understand romantic love without feeling lost and confused? Love is an elusive state of being, and the challenge of harnessing it has preoccupied poets and philosophers for centuries. Should we even bother applying the tools of science to try to unpack this emotion?
I am an affective scientist. The answer to this question is always yes.
What is love?
Our first hurdle to taming love is to define it. Early-stage romantic love is often called passionate love, and this love appears to be at least partially distinct from companionate love, or the gentle care that grows in long-term relationships as the intoxication of early love cools.
With Valentine’s Day around the corner, let’s focus on passionate love.
In a sea of humanity, two people find each other. They feel as though this other person has a map to the interior of their mind, they think of nothing but them (as Helen Fisher likes to say, “someone is camping in your head”), and they experience disruptions in all of their other goals due to an all-encompassing absorption in the other.
This is passionate love.
Love… on the brain?
Our second hurdle to taming love is answering the how of it. What happens in the brain when you are swept off your feet?
One of the most famous investigations of the brain in love, discussed in Helen Fisher’s talk at TED*, put 17 people "madly in love" in the fMRI scanner and showed them pictures of their beloved and of familiar others. The results revealed that when viewing pictures of the romantic other, participants recruited areas in the brain previously demonstrated to be associated with reward-seeking behavior such as drug-taking (most notably, the caudate and the ventral tegmental area). The authors interpreted this activation as being associated with the cravings and obsessive thinking of romantic love. More recent investigations have found that the strength of activation in some of these reward-associated areas during early stages of love can predict successful relationship outcomes at 40 months.
These imaging studies indicate that to our brains, the romantic other is represented as a potent reward, and that the more intensely we recruit brain regions involved in reward to reminders of our beloved, the better our chances of long-term success as a couple.
But how does this one particular person come to be so rewarding?
Who falls in love?
This leads us to the third hurdle to taming love: the age-old question of who?
Psychologists have known for quite some time that proximity (someone you see a lot) and similarity (attractiveness level, education, socioeconomic background) are among the best predictors of a love match. But why might proximity and similarity be so important?
There are a host of reasons, but I believe some significant clues lie in research on social support and positive psychology. Research on positive interactions in general suggests that the experience of sharing mutual ideas about the world (called “cognitive representations”) is inherently rewarding.
These interactions can occur in minute moments - like sharing a pop-culture reference with a friend - or in more significant encounters - like candlelit, long-winded philosophical discussions in which you both exclaim, yes, yes, exactly so!
These are moments of connection that influential positive psychology researcher Barbara Fredrickson calls positivity resonance. In her new book she argues that these resonant moments occur between all sorts of partners – friends, colleagues, parents/children – but that when they occur again and again over a long period of time with an appropriate (age, sexual orientation, etc.) relationship partner, romantic feelings bloom.
If the romantic feelings are requited and there aren’t other barriers, the couple spends increasing amounts of time together, allowing for more and more resonance. They also begin to express their mutual attraction physically, which of course provides its own reinforcements.
Voila… passionate love!
Psychological science has yielded intriguing clues to the what, how, and who of love, but important questions still remain. Perhaps that is how it should be – our world would surely be a dimmer, duller place should love ever truly be tamed.
Research and reporting on the neuroscience of love seems to be particularly plagued by problems with reverse inference (brain area X is activated, therefore the people must be experiencing Y), over-simplistic metaphors (such as to addiction), and over-simplified explanations of nervous system function (see recent posts on misinterpretations of the roles of dopamine and oxytocin in the nervous system, for example). Definitely proceed with your critical thinking cap on.
*Please plug your ears during the internet dating by way of neurotransmitter levels by way of self-report part of the talk.
Please, I want some more!
I’ve posted some links to further reading and viewing on the science of love here on my personal webpage.