Helen Fisher is an anthropologist who studies romantic love in order to better understand the ways in which we are attracted to other people, fall in love, become attached long-term, and even experience heart break and infidelity. She collaborates with other researchers and uses psychological measures and brain imagining to better understand the nature of romantic love. Her work gives us an insight into how our brains respond to the people we love.
In the video below, she recognises the ancient history of love in the human species. Love is in every society! Love is not a new thing! And yet, we are still trying to understand its powerful hold over us.
When scanning the brain activity of people happily in love, Fisher and her colleagues found activity in a part of the brain’s reward system (dopamine production is key). This area does not deal directly with thoughts and emotions, but is part of the so-called reptilian part of the brain associated with craving, focus and motivation (think of a drug-induced high). It’s no wonder we obsess about people we fall for.
When they looked at the brains of people who had just been dumped, they also found activity in this area but also in a brain region associated with calculating gains, losses and risk taking as well as brain regions associated with attachment (deep and enduring emotional tie to another person). Fisher compares romantic love to a need just like hunger or thirst. Romantic love is addictive!
But we don’t just fall for anyone. Attraction and attachment have an important place in achieving committed relationships. Attraction helps us to focus our attention on just one person, (unlike an indiscreet sex drive) and attachment means we maintain closeness and seek comfort from the person we love.
The good news is that brain imaging has shown that people who claim to still be in love with their long-term partners of 25+ years, show the same brain activity patterns as those in the throes of a new love affair. This is a little piece of evidence that long-term love really is possible.