The Neurophysiology of Love

“People live for love; they kill for love; they die for love. … it is one of the most powerful brain systems on Earth, both for great joy, and for great sorrow.”

Helen Fisher is a Biological Anthropologist who has been studying romantic love and sex and attachment for over 30 years. This talk is profound, it is moving, and it might change the way you look at the world a little bit. I strongly recommend it.

…but for the impatient among you, I’ll summarize the highlights:

Helen and her team put 32 people who were madly in love in an MRI brain scanner. For 17 of them their love was returned; for 15, their love was unrequited. Here’s what she has learned.

Love drives activity in a lot of brain regions; one of them was the region that becomes active when you feel the “rush” of cocaine. Helen came to realize that love is not an emotion, but a drive; a craving. “It comes from the ‘motor’ part of the mind, the ‘wanting’ part, the ‘craving’ part. The part that lights up when you reach for chocolate, when your sports team wins, when you get that promotion.”

There are three distinct brain systems for love, evolved from mating and procreation: the sex drive, that seeks sexual gratification; the drive for romantic love, which gives us the elated, obsessive thrill of early love; and the deep attachment system, which gives us the sense of calm and security with a long-term partner.

Lust, romance, and attachment, each with an evolutionary role to play in reproduction.

Lust drives us to seek many partners; romance drives us to focus our mating energy on one partner, conserving mating energy; and attachment keeps us connected with a partner long enough to raise our offspring.

[Aside, and this is not in the Ted talk – this triumvirate of brain systems is likely related to three hormones in the human endocrine system: testosterone, dopamine, and oxytocin/vasopressin. Testosterone drives desire; dopamine is the brain’s reward system; oxytocin and vasopressin are associated with connection. (If you’re skeptical about the relationship between testosterone and desire, because everybody knows it’s about manliness, and you’re looking to kill the rest of your afternoon, give this podcast a listen. I’ll probably do another full post on this at some point, if you’re lazy and patient.]

So Helen notes that during orgasm, the brain releases dopamine; after orgasm, the brain releases oxytocin and vasopressin. As such, orgasm can create and certainly reinforces romantic and connected love.

“That rush of hormones in orgasm can tip anyone into love. What does that say about ‘casual sex?'”

Helen turns to the relationship between these three brain systems. They can be connected to each other, but are not always. You can feel deep attachment to a long term partner, while you feel intense romantic love for someone else… while you feel lust for people unrelated to these partners. In short, we’re wired in ways that allow us to love more than one person at the same time. “We are not animals who were built to be happy – we are animals who were built to reproduce. The happiness we find, we make. We can make good relationships with each other, but we have to work at it.”

Helen shares some thoughts on the evolution of love in modern society. She notes that the return of women to the workplace is having an impact on sexuality and love:

“Millions of years ago … when women provided 80% of the food [by agriculture], the double income family was the standard. Women were regarded as just as economically, socially, and sexually powerful as men.” The invention of the plow removed women’s food gathering responsibilities, which shifted power increasingly towards men.” With the industrial revolution, across the globe, slowly but inexorably, women are returning to the workplace.

“The dogs may bark, but the caravan moves on.” — Arab saying

As that happens, “women are reclaiming their sexuality and we’re seeing a return to the marriage between equals; these are patterns that are highly compatible with the ancient human spirit.”

“Not at any time in history on this planet have women been so interesting, so educated, so capable.”

Finally, she describes her concerns with the rise of anti-depressants. Anti-depressants raise serotonin; when you raise serotonin, you depress dopamine, which may impair our ability to feel romantic love. It also kills the sex drive; without sex, there is no orgasm, and without orgasm, there is no flood of oxytocin/vasopressin, which may impair our ability to feel attachment. “When you tamper with one brain system, you’re going to be tampering with another.”

“I’m just simply saying that a world without love is a deadly place.”

Brilliant talk, and very topical. I (re)learn something every time I watch it.

About dondo

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Are you a spambot? *