Love means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. I study the brain and I think we’ve evolved three distinctly different brain systems, each one of them various people would call love. The three brain systems are the sex drive, the craving for sexual gratification linked with the testosterone system in both men and women. The second is romantic love, obsessive love, being in love, infatuation, whatever you want to call it, linked with the dopamine system in the brain. And the third brain system is attachment, that sense of calm and security that you can feel with a long-term partner. Other scientists have linked that with the oxytocin in the vasopressin system.
We found some things in all three types of people. We found activity in a tiny little factory near the base of the brain called the ventral tegmental area and we found the activity in some cells that actually make dopamine, a natural stimulant, and send that dopamine to many brain regions. And dopamine is associated with feelings of obsession and craving, euphoria, focus, energy and motivation, in this case the motivation to win life’s greatest prize which is a mating partner.
We did find some differences. Among those people who were in love long term; they no longer showed activity in the brain region linked with anxiety. You know when you’ve just fallen in love you are anxious, you get home and you lie in bed and you say what did I say that for, what did he mean by that, am I too fat, I shouldn’t have done this, I could do this—you’re anxious. And among those who are in love long term we no longer found activity in brain regions linked with anxiety. Instead we found activity in brain regions with calm and pain suppression. You still feel deep attachment to the person but that early stage insecurity, anxiety and tension is now replaced with calm.
Among people who had been rejected in love we found a great deal of activity in the brain region linked with the profound addictions. Romantic love is an addiction, it’s a perfectly wonderful addiction when it’s going well and a perfectly horrible addiction when it’s going poorly. And among those people who had just been rejected in love we found activity in the brain region linked with intense romantic love—you know if you’ve just been dumped you dislike the person even more and the reason being is because your amping up that dopamine system.
We also found activity in the brain region linked with deep sense of attachment among people who had just been rejected in love and last, but by no means least, we found activity in brain regions linked with pain and the anxiety that goes with physical pain. So when you have been rejected in love you’re craving the person, you’re madly in love with the person, you’re feeling deep attachment to the person and indeed you’re in physical and emotional pain. And in fact I recently read an article which actually showed that taking a Tylenol or an aspirin is actually good for the psychological and physical pain of romantic rejection. And sure enough that helps to understand my own data, which is that there’s physical pain when you’ve been rejected in love.Dr Helen Fisher is a biological anthropologist and research professor at Rutgers University.