Valentine’s Day may be behind us but love is everlasting. Victor Hugo succinctly described the fundamental importance of love when he said that “Life is the flower for which love is the honey.”
Could love really be the secret ingredient to a delicious and fruitful life?
Think back to the person who gave you the first arrhythmia of your life for a minute. Why did you feel the butterflies in your stomach flutter like crazy for that person and not for someone else?
According to Helen Fisher, PhD who has done numerous studies on the biological mechanisms underlying attraction, who you choose to love depends on four hormones: dopamine, serotonin, testosterone, estrogen.
Love is in our DNA
Biological Anthropologist Helen Fisher contends that love is a drive similar to hunger and thirst. People from all walks of life experience the ecstasy of love. Fisher explains the addictive nature of love when she writes, “Engulfed in energy and ecstasy, the lover plunges into despair at the slightest adversity.” In other words, a brain in love is due for an emotional rollercoaster.
You are more likely to be attracted to someone who has similar:
- socio-economic status
- ethnic background
- level of education
- physical attractiveness
- religious and social values
However, sharing the qualities above with someone you know may not be necessarily sufficient to make you fall in love with him/her. Traits of temperament, the biological underpinnings of one’s personality, are linked to certain genes, hormones and/or neurotransmitter systems that affect your partner choice. In her studies, Fisher found four neural systems that are consistently associated with personality traits. For instance, traits such as novelty, adventure seeking, and susceptibility to boredom have been linked with variations in the dopamine system. Sociability, harm avoidance, sticking to rules, and self-control on the other hand have been associated with elevated activity in the serotonin systems. Those that Fisher coins as “directors” express testosterone regularly and tend to be less socially aware and have poor emotion recognition skills. However, they are self-confident, assertive and emotionally contained. Lastly, holistic thinking, linguistic skills, agreeableness and empathy have been linked with estrogen activity.
When Fisher analyzed how people’s mate choices matched with the four temperament dimensions, she found that opposites do attract in certain cases. For instance, while curious men and women (dopamine related) were primarily attracted to those who share similar traits, the analytical and tough minded individuals (testosterone related) were attracted to their opposites who were imaginative and compassionate (estrogen related).
In one study, Fisher and her colleagues used fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) to scan the brains of more than 40 men and women all for love. Results suggested a link between increased activity in the brain’s dopamine centers and looking at a photo of the beloved. The findings make sense because dopamine is related to high energy, focused attention and getting rewards.
A similar activation of the dopamine system is also observed in many animals including birds. When animals court, they focus on specific mates, obsess about them and treat them tenderly. In a way, they behave as if they are madly in love, just like us. And when they charm their mates, they become winners in the animal kingdom.
In light of the evidence, it seems that our modern brains do have the wiring to love and may even be “programmed” to expect love in return. However, is romantic love the only type of love to make us feel like a winner? And how do changing social norms influence our desire for a romantic relationship? These are questions that are still up for debate.
- 1. Fisher, H. (2004). What is Love? On Air, BBC International Magazine 98:12-15 http://www.helenfisher.com/downloads/articles/08bbconair.pdf
- 2. Fisher, H. E. (2012). We have chemistry! - the role of four primary temperament dimensions in mate choice and partner compatibility. Geoff Warburton, Ed. The Psychotherapist, Autumn 2012:Issue 52: 8-9. United Kingdom. http://www.helenfisher.com/downloads/