Love is an enigma, especially to scientists. It is rarely discussed as a measurable phenomenon and even less often broached academically. Most basic biology and neuroscience texts don't even give it a shout out. The social sciences do a better job to address it, but researchers are still in the earliest stages of developing a unified theory of the science of love.
In reading through the comments on my previous post, I am stricken by how many conversations revolve around long-term commitment. Let's not get ahead of ourselves... we've only just met! Many of you seem to have very strong feelings about the effort and insight necessary to maintain love, but where is the discussion about falling in love? Why is it that we can almost instantly feel a connection to one person and not to another? The science of attraction is fascinating, and a discerning look at it reveals a lot of previously held myths that are due for a good busting.
For example, you may be surprised to learn that one of the most powerful predictors of attraction (both to friends and to romantic partners) is proximity. It is known that most people will fall in love with and subsequently marry somebody who comes from the same neighborhood, works in the same building or goes to the same school. This seems to have something to do with the mere-exposure effect (also known as the familiarity principle), which is the tendency for people to like things (or people) simply because they frequently encounter them. Old blue eyes, Frank Sinatra, summed this principle up nicely with his tongue-in-cheek line, "when I'm not near the girl I love, I love the girl I'm near."
At first glance, the idea that "the one" may be only cubicles away seems counter-intuitive. But so do many facts about love. You may think that opposites attract, because that's what you've been told your entire life. You may think that, but you are mistaken. Many studies have confirmed that individuals report longer, happier relationships to those who are most like themselves across measures. Age, ethnicity, religion, political views, and socio-economic factors are all similar among those we are likely to marry. Perhaps most surprising is that the aggressive, ambitious, workaholic individuals with Type A personalities usually choose to date other Type As and not their more relaxed, patient and seemingly complimentary Type B counterparts.
As we all know, attraction is only a part of the story when it comes to the scientific study of love, and psychological measures do not tell all. Peering into the brains of individuals who claim to be in love has illuminated the functional, somatic underpinnings of this seemingly intangible emotion. Helen Fisher is probably the most cited authority on the neuroscience of love. Her research breaks down romantic love into three distinct stages: lust, attraction and attachment. These stages correspond with specific neurological pathways that are rich in dopamine and oxytocin (among other neurochemicals). Dopamine is the neurotransmitter responsible for motivation, goal-oriented behavior, arousal and even addiction. Oxytocin has long been dubbed the "love hormone." It is known for its role in influencing the strong bonds that exist between mother and child, as well as those between romantic partners.
In the Ted Talk below, Dr. Fisher says that "love is in us. It is deeply embedded in the brain. Our challenge is to understand each other." To learn more about the neurobiology of romantic love, stay tuned for my post tomorrow, which explores this topic with an interactive graphic.