It’s true that your most important sex organ is between your ears, so it’s important to understand the myriad of factors that contribute to your brain in love.
With an irresistible cocktail of chemicals, our brain entices us to fall in love. We believe we’re choosing a partner. But we may merely be the happy victims of nature’s lovely plan. The most exhilarating of all human emotions is probably nature’s beautiful way of keeping the human species alive and reproducing.
In a famous experiment, biological anthropologist Helen E. Fisher, a research professor in the department of anthropology at Rutgers University, surveyed over 75 men and women who were madly in love. The participants had their brains scanned and mapped for the basic circuits that fire up when you fall head over heels for someone. Primary activity occurs in a tiny factory near the base of the brain — the ventral tegmental area or VTA. This brain region makes dopamine, a natural stimulant; then shoots this intoxicant to many other brain areas, giving you feelings of elation, energy, craving, motivation and obsession. Indeed, when you’re in love, you can’t stop thinking about him or her: someone is camping in your head. And this brain network can be triggered instantly — swamping you with intense romantic passion.
We inherited this natural response from our animal predecessors. As Darwin noted, lots of animals express an instant attraction to another. Take a female squirrel. At the beginning of the breeding season, she needs to find a healthy, alert male squirrel. She doesn’t have three years to discuss his college plans. She needs to breed now, today. So when she sees a male with a nice bushy tail, youthful whiskers and an energetic gait, she may become instantly attracted to him — love at first sight. I use this term because the brain circuits that trigger this instant magnetism in other animals is uncannily similar to the brain circuits associated with human romantic love.
Humans have an evolved and big cerebral cortex, the outer rind of the brain with which we do our thinking. Still, the actual feeling of intense romantic attraction to another person may not be very different from that of our mammalian brethren. Does that explain why half of the surveyed population believed in love at first sight?
We have evolved three quite distinct (yet overlapping) brain circuits for mating and reproduction:
- the sex drive — the urge for sexual gratification
- romantic love — the ecstasy, energy and craving of intense romantic passion
- attachment — a sense of cosmic union with another.
These three brain systems mix and match in many different combinations to produce a myriad of loving feelings. For example, you can meet someone and instantly find him or her sexually attractive, yet feel none of the butterflies in the stomach associated with intense romantic love. Or you can feel romantically pulled toward someone you have never slept with.
These three brain systems evolved for different reasons. The sex drive developed millions of years ago to enable our forebears to seek sex with a range of partners. Romantic love emerged to enable our ancestors to focus their mating energy on just one individual at a time. And the brain circuitry for deep attachment enabled them to form long-term partnerships — and thus weather the stresses of child rearing, financial responsibilities, illness and aging as a team.
This is how the brain works when we fall in love or lust; the “why?” is the mysterious wonderment of other reasons.