The complex emotions that make up love are all based in science. An exploration of love in terms of physiological changes provides insight into the phenomenon, but it also shows how love is related to other emotions and even mental illness.
Research done at Rutgers University by faculty member Helen Fisher has answered many of the previously unanswered questions about the physiological basis for the emotions related to relationships and romantic love.
The brain is the information center of the human body. Most of the information accumulated by the five senses is processed there, so it makes sense that the key to understanding love would be in this region.
Fisher’s lab, focusing on love in the brain, found that two areas were integral to the feeling of love. The first area is the ventral tegmental area, which is important to coordinating the body’s reward system. It does this by generating dopamine. Dopamine is a chemical that, when released, is associated with pleasure and energy.
But this area is associated with more than just love. Fisher’s work also points out that the VTA is activated during the use of drugs such as cocaine.
One of the main conclusions of her work is that love is a natural addiction. In fact, the results show that the rejection resulting from a romantic break up can be similar to withdrawal from drugs like cocaine.
“We are addicted to another person when we are in love, but it’s a very good addiction when the relationship is a good one,” Fisher’s website, The Anatomy of Love, reads.
The VTA is not the only region of the brain active in the generation of love. Another region called the caudate is also integral to feeling romantic love. It is also part of the brain’s reward system, acting as a integrating center for many regions of the brain.
In Fisher’s research, she speculates that the caudate takes information from many different regions of brain and builds the association of those memories, thoughts and feelings with romantic love.
If love is a feeling generated by the reward systems of the brain, then what is it rewarding? The answer to this question ventures into the field of evolution. Love, like most other behaviors and anatomical structures, improves the ability of the human species to generate offspring and survive. It is an adaptation forged by natural selection.
Fisher’s work suggests that, in evolutionary terms, love can be thought of as a drive. It is a motivation to find a preferred mating partner.
More information can be found about Fisher’s work on her personal website or The Anatomy of Love.