Love, dating and neuroscience
When writer Kayt Sukel was perched to reenter the dating world, she was suddenly confronted with the fact that she could not answer what she thought of as the “relatively easy question” — namely, “what is love?”
“It was probably naïve of me to think of it as something ‘easy,’” Sukel says, “but I had gotten some notion — probably from novels and sappy movies — that I should have a better handle on that dratted L-word by the time I got married and started a family. And then when my marriage fell apart, I felt like it was time to frame love-related questions in a different way — to see if maybe neuroscience might offer me some better insight than what I could find on the self-help shelves.” With that in mind, Sukel set out on a quest to learn what answers neuroscientists could yield up in regards to the hard questions about love, lust, and monogamy. The results of her search can be found in her book, Dirty Minds: How Our Brains Influence Love, Sex, and Relationships (Free Press, 2012), a thorough and lively investigation into the latest research on love and the brain.
“I’ll be honest,” Sukel adds, “I was hoping to find some actionable advice as I reentered the dating realm. I was hoping to debunk a lot of love-related myths and go back out into the dating world with the idea that I had a handle on this whole love thing. I wanted the upper hand, darn it! That’s not exactly what happened, but I learned a lot.” When we talked to Sukel about her discoveries in our Q&A session, here’s what she had to say:
Q: We all know the strange behavior associated with falling in love: daydreaming, obsessing, talking non-stop about the new beloved. What’s happening inside our brains when we’re falling in love?
A: What’s happening is a whole lot of a neurotransmitter called dopamine. Those strange behaviors you speak of — lack of focus, obsessing, even the physical symptoms of love, like sweaty palms and butterflies — these are all linked to the release of dopamine in an area of the brain called the basal ganglia. It’s the area of the brain responsible for risk and reward processing, which makes sense when you think about it. What greater reward — or risk, for that matter — is there than love? But dopamine does not work alone. There are a variety of other neurotransmitters, hormones and chemicals that also play a role in making us love-crazy crackheads — chemicals like oxytocin, vasopressin, glutamate, estrogen and testosterone that can work directly and indirectly on our brains and influence our behavior.
Q: And how is that different from the neurological activity that occurs when we experience lust?
A: There’s probably some overlap with lust. One love researcher, Dr. Helen Fisher [author of Why Him? Why Her?: Finding Real Love by Understanding Your Personality Type and Chief Scientific Officer for Chemistry.com], proposes that there are three distinct brain systems for romantic love, lust and attachment. These three systems work together, but often work against each other, too. There’s a reason that it’s hard to tease apart love and lust; they use a lot of the same bits of [your] brain.
Q: Have neuroscientists learned why we find certain people to be irresistible?
A: Not exactly. They do know that our bodies are constantly giving off a lot of information that our brains pick up and process — and we may not even be conscious of what it is that our brains are getting. There’s a lot to learn. But they are gaining insight into why romantic love can be so obsessive. The same brain areas involved in romantic love — parts of the basal ganglia, like the nucleus accumbens and ventral tegmental area — are also linked to drug addiction. So when singers talk about love being a drug, they aren’t far off the mark.
Q: Can neuroscience explain why we often fall out of love?
A: If only they could! But studies have shown that enduring love is possible. A recent neuroimaging study led by Dr. Helen Fisher and her colleagues looked at the brains of couples who professed to be madly in love even after decades together. The activation signatures in the love areas of the brain looked almost identical to couples who are newly in love. Love can last a lifetime — but scientists are still trying to figure out why some relationships last forever and others fizzle out after only a few weeks.
Q: What about infidelity? Can scientists shed any light on what causes some to stray while others don’t?
A: There’s been quite a bit of work [looking] into a neurochemical called vasopressin — it has been linked to infidelity and risk-taking. And some hope that a “fidelity drug” could be created from understanding the ins and outs of this little neuropeptide. The problem is that vasopressin is also involved in a lot of other critical body functions, too. But neuroscientists are looking closely at both the genes and the brain chemistry of a small rodent called the prairie vole to help give us a better understanding of what makes some people stray.
Q: How can recent studies about the brain help the average dater? What dating pitfalls could this information help one avoid on the road to finding love?
A: As someone who is back on the dating scene myself, I think it helps a bit to know that we’re all a little clueless. But I think the other two important takeaways I got from my research were to (a) meet more people, and (b) go with your gut. As much as it may feel safer to hide behind your dating profile for as long as possible, you should get out and meet a lot of different people. Sure, that person might not meet all your ideal mate criteria from that glance you took at [his or her] profile, but you may learn [this person] may have other things to offer — things that are even better. Once you do meet someone, give yourself a gut check. As I said, bodies give off a lot of information that your brain can unconsciously pick up and process. Make sure to listen to what your brain is telling you!
Kayt Sukel is a freelance travel and science writer and author of Dirty Minds: How Our Brains Influence Love, Sex, and Relationships (Free Press). Photo of the author courtesy of Kayt Sukel.
Theo Pauline Nestor is the author of How to Sleep Alone in King-Size Bed: A Memoir of Starting Over.