Many of us can feel a little hesitant to examine the neuroscience and biology of love. We like to think of love as this magical force that comes from the heavens and the idea that it can be boiled down to a series of chemicals and neurons seems to somehow cheapen it.
But there’s no reason why it should. After all, all of our behaviors can be traced back to the action of neurons and neurotransmitters and in many ways, it’s a nice thought that the tools we need to fall in love are hardwired right into our brains – that this is a crucial part of what makes us human.
And by better understanding what’s going on inside our heads, it can actually give us a whole new appreciation. So, without further ado, let’s take a look at the science behind love…
The Evolutionary Theory
Were you to ask an evolutionary psychologist about love, they would tell you that all human traits must have some kind of ‘survival value’. Evolution depends on survival of the fittest. That means that certain traits help us to survive and so these traits get passed on when we reproduce. They proliferate.
Traits that provide no advantage will be less likely to survive generation after generation and thus they will be gradually weeded out.
It’s very obvious why we are attracted to members of the opposite sex then. The science of attraction comes down to the need to pass on our genes so that they will survive. If you were not interested in sex, then you would not be able to pass on your lack of interest in sex! Thus, the majority of us will find we want to be with partners of the opposite sex.
What’s more, is that we appear to choose partners that are best suited to our particular genetic lottery. We look for partners that are similar to us for instance because they are more likely to be compatible and because they will help to strengthen our traits rather than dilute them. We also tend to seek out partners that are healthy because they will theoretically provide us with healthier children. Things like symmetry and muscle tone provide us with these visual clues.
So, this is where lust and desire comes from and it’s why some different people have different preferences when seeking out partners. This is why we go looking for ‘love’ in the first place.
But that does not explain the science of love. After all, once we’ve reproduced, what benefit is there for us to remain with our partners? Surely it would make more sense – especially for men – if we were to go and try and spread our seed as far and wide as possible?
One explanation is that by staying together and forming a family, a couple is able to better care for their children. This is why women will often be attracted to men that have access to resources but also men that are more loyal and more likely to be there for them when the child arrives.
The primitive men who left to sleep around may well have found that their children never made it to adulthood.
The Biology of Love
That explains why we adapted to fall in love but it doesn’t yet explain how we fall in love. It doesn’t quite explain the science behind love in terms of chemistry or neuroscience.
Specifically then, love seems to be the result of a neurotransmitter called ‘oxytocin’. Oxytocin is a neurotransmitter that makes us feel incredible warmth and kindness toward other people and it is produced when we see someone we love, as well as when we hug or kiss.
Oxytocin is produced in large quantities during sex and this may help couples to ‘bond’ after they have been intimate. Oxytocin might also be responsible for feelings of heartbreak when a relationship ends.
Oxytocin is not only responsible for the science behind love in an intimate, romantic sense – it is also responsible for maternal and paternal love. A new mother will produce large amounts of oxytocin when she first gives birth, for example.
Other feel-good endorphins are also involved in this process, including serotonin – which is also produced when we eat!
Vasopressin is also produced in large quantities following sex or hugging and also appears to be important in the formation of long-term relationships. Interestingly, vasopressin is also an anti-diuretic. Make of that what you will.
Experience and Memories
There are more straightforward explanations for the science of love though. For all that oxytocin can do to make you feel head over heels and for all that vasopressin might do to make us feel long-term attachment, there are also simple practical considerations.
A relationship lasts if you get along with a person, if you share similar interests and approaches to life and if you are compatible. If this is the case and you make each other laugh, then you will from more positive memories spending time with one another.
Eventually, more and more of the memories stored in your brain will involve that other person. More and more things will make you think of them and more and more of your habits will involve them. This is why we can miss our ‘other half’ so much when they are gone. The simple fact of the matter is that they are a huge part of our lives and now something seems missing when they’re not there.
When you combine all these factors together, you get a picture of love. It is the excitement and attraction that is driven by hormones and evolution, it is the sense of bonding and love that comes from neurotransmitters, and it is the comfort of having a friend and partner in everything you do.
The picture is slightly different for all of us, but it will always include some combination of these factors. And I feel that knowing the science of love in no way cheapens the feeling.