By Helen Fisher, Ph.D.
"Tell me where is fancy bred, or in the heart, or in the head?" asked Shakespeare.
He was one of millions who, over the centuries, have wondered where romantic love comes from.
We now know, at least partially. I and my colleagues have put 32 men and women who were madly in love into a brain scanner and recorded their neural activity as they looked at a photograph of their beloved. Brain circuits associated with dopamine "lit up." What does this mean for someone who's smitten? Dopamine is a natural stimulant that produces focused attention, energy, motivation, and often exhilaration. In fact, one of these brain regions is also triggered when a person feels a rush from cocaine. "What wild ecstasy" wrote poet John Keats of love. Keats knew the elation of dopamine as it courses through the brain.
Is love a drug?
But romantic love is much more than the buzz of a natural stimulant. This passion starts when a person begins to see the object of his or her affection as unique, as special. As one man said to psychologist Dorothy Tennov, "My life had a new center, and that center was Mary Ann." George Bernard Shaw phrased it differently, saying, "Love consists of over-estimating the differences between one woman and another."
Then the lover begins to focus intently on everything related to the beloved. "Her" car is different from every other car in the parking lot. "His" gym locker; the street "she" lives on: A person in love dotes upon everything about a new amour. You probably know the sensations from your own experience—you exaggerate their worth, too, aggrandize their talents and minimize their flaws. You are intoxicated--drunk on dopamine (and many other chemicals) that are dancing in your head. Indeed, lovers often have a hard time sleeping or eating. Some get "butterflies" in the stomach, weak knees, or feel a pounding heart; others stammer, flush, grow pale, shake or sweat. All are symptoms of dopamine and other natural stimulants coursing through the brain.
When love hurts so good
Adversity heightens romantic passion too. What knavery has nature worked! When the beloved doesn't call or write, we love them even harder—-probably because these brain pathways for energy and motivation just keep working when you can't get what you want. As Walt Whitman said of this dependence, "O, I would stake all for you."
Lovers are also sexually possessive. If you are having casual sex with "just a friend," you don't really care if he or she is also sleeping with someone else. But when in love, even very stable people succumb to jealousy if they suspect their beloved is flirting with another. Known as "mate guarding," this possessiveness is the source of many worldwide crimes of passion.
Under love's spell
Central to romantic love is obsessive thinking. Night and day you think of "him" or "her" You have someone camping in your head. But of all the intoxicating feelings of romantic love, perhaps the most powerful is the craving for emotional union with the beloved. Foremost, the lover wants this special person to call, to write, to invite them out for dinner or a drink, to share, to plan—and to say those precious words, "I love you."
Plato wrote in The Symposium in 416 B.C. that the God of Love "lives in a state of need." This need is a basic human drive. Like thirst and hunger, it is nearly impossible to stamp out. In fact, lovers show all of the signs of addiction. Like a drug addict, they focus on their beloved, distort reality, do inappropriate, even dangerous things to win this precious creature, crave their company and suffer withdrawals of despair if rejected. Lovers relapse like addicts, too. I recall one friend of mine who was getting over a horrible rejection--until she heard a particular song on her car radio. Her craving for her lost beloved instantly returned. She had to pull off the road to cry.
In an archeological museum in Istanbul rests a lump of clay the size of a soft ball. It is incised with cuneiform. Beside it is a little sign that reads, "The first love poem, 2032 B.C." Humankind has left thousands of these artifacts in some 170 societies. Love songs, love poems, love stories, love charms, love potions, myths and legends about love: People live for love, kill for love; die for love. Why?
Because when it strikes, we feel so high.
Helen Fisher, Ph.D., is research professor, department of anthropology; author of Why We Love; and is chief scientific advisor to www.chemistry.com.