Why do we fall in love? It’s an age-old question that has had people ponder, while watching their campfires or writing poems, for thousands of years. Where does love come from? How does it work? Why does love lodge itself in our minds, hearts and souls, so completely and stubbornly? How is it able to permeate every aspect of human imagination?
Does Love Change Our Brains?
Dr Helen Fisher, an American anthropologist and human behaviour researcher, worked with a team of scientists scanning the brains of people who had just fallen madly in love. Together they were able to prove what psychologists had until recently only suspected. When we fall in love, specific areas of our brains light up with increased blood flow.
What is Love Made up of?
In Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love, Fisher outlines the three key components of love. Each involves different but connected brain systems.
The Three Components of Love
- Focused attention.
- Obsessive thinking.
- Intense craving for the individual.
Fisher used this data to argue that romantic passion is hardwired into our brains by millions of years of evolution. She says that she realised that romantic love is not an emotion. Instead, it is a drive. It comes from the motor part of the mind. The part that wants and craves. It’s the same area of the brain that’s at work when you’re reaching for chocolate or want a work promotion. Essentially, she concludes, when we fall in love, it’s a drive as powerful as hunger.
The Biology and Evolution of Falling in Love
By far, the largest number of modern-day theories on what is love have a biological and evolutionary basis. Author Douglas Kenrick, Professor of Psychology at Arizona State University, published “A Dynamical Evolutionary View of Love” in The New Psychology of Love. In it, he proposes that love is a set of decision biases that evolved to serve genetic interests. This interest is specifically to facilitate reproduction.
He says that “Romantic love, is an instinctive part of human nature”. He explains that humans encounter a variety of different problems. Which relate to survival and reproduction such as mate seeking, mate retention and parental care. And these problems require various solutions, with different decision biases evolved for every goal system. This translates into there being different kinds of love that are relevant to these various domains. For example, the love one feels for one’s partner is different from the love one feels for one’s children.
Kenrick acknowledges the existence of cultural differences in love and corresponding behaviours. He believes that they arise because of social variations in the physical ecology. Specifically that behaviours that are adaptive in one environment are not necessarily adaptive in a different environment.
Choice and Love
Science certainly provides a remarkably serviceable tool for exploring and defining what is love. However, the role of the emotional mind cannot be ignored entirely. Think of a child’s fierce and inarticulate longing for his parents. The torrential passion between young lovers and any mother’s unshakable devotion. Surely not all of these can be assigned to this gene or that collection of cells? And what about the fact that love is capable of sending us to extremes of emotion? From abysmal misery on the one hand to irrepressible joy on the other. Love so often seems a force beyond mortal control, dumb, blind and entirely arbitrary. But are we really powerless to its whims? Or do we actually choose carefully, if not always wisely, the partners we do?
Do We Choose Who to Love?
A large body of recent research indicates that we fall in love neither by chance nor by accident. In Falling in Love: Why We Choose the Lovers We Choose, Israeli psychologist, Professor Ayala Malach-Pines, argues that we both consciously and unconsciously select those with whom we have intimate relationships. She identifies what she terms “relationship variables”. These variables explain how people fall in love and whom they choose as romantic partners. Among them is “reciprocity in attraction”, meaning the knowledge that the other is attracted to us. And “need satisfaction”, is the fact that the other satisfies an important need or provides something of value. She also analyses the role of similarity in romantic attraction. Including similarity in interests, values, background, attractiveness, intelligence, and even such things as genetic makeup and psychological health.
Love and Meaning of Life
Finally, there are also theories that connect love with the search for existential significance. Pulitzer prize-winning psychologist Ernest Becker described romantic love as one of the ways we satisfy our need to feel “heroic”. Thus to know that our lives matter in the larger “cosmic” scheme of things. And to “merge with something higher” than ourselves. According to Austrian psychoanalyst, Otto Rank, one of the reasons romantic love is attributed such great importance today, is that people are looking for it to serve the function that religion once served for our predecessors. Therefore, to give life a sense of purpose and meaning.
Undeniably, the importance given to romantic love in modern Western society is indeed unparalleled. As Swiss cultural theorist, Denis de Rougemont, observed in his ground-breaking Love in the Western World: “No other civilisation, in the 7 000 years that one civilisation has been succeeding another, has bestowed on love … anything like the same amount of daily publicity.”
How to Understand Human Behaviour
Are you fascinated by human behaviour? As well as the ways in which our psychology dictates our life choices? SACAP offers a range of psychology courses for those interested in pursuing a career in this fascinating field. For more information, enquire now.