all over the world describe falling in love
in similar terms: euphoria, exhilaration, elation.
an intense craving for the person they adore.
But just how does the brain process romantic
Anthropologist Helen Fisher, author of "Why
We Love," studied the brain circuitry that
makes falling in love the intense, passionate
emotion it is. She found that the brain sees
romantic love as a reward, stimulating activity
in the same areas that light up when a person
seeks any kind of a reward, whether it's chocolate,
money or drugs.
"It became apparent to me that romantic
love was a drive -- a drive as strong as thirst,
as hunger. People live for love, they kill for
love, they die for love, they sing about love,"
"There are myths and legends about love.
The oldest love poetry is over 4,000 years old.
The world is littered with all kinds of artifacts
that stem from this basic mating drive."
Fisher went on a quest to unravel the mystery
of the brain in love. She teamed up with Art
Aron, a psychologist and professor at Stony
Brook University in New York and Lucy Brown,
a professor in neurology and neuroscience at
the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New
They studied 17 people who recently had fallen
madly in love -- people who were spending 80
percent of their waking hours not being able
to think of anybody else. The subjects had been
in love an average of seven months.
The findings were published last year in the
Journal of Neurophysiology.
For the study, Fisher developed a questionnaire
about passionate love, including such questions
as "Would you die for your partner?"
She said she was shocked by the answers to that
query: All of the subjects said they would.
What especially surprised her was the casual
way in which they responded.
The participants were put into an MRI machine
and asked to stare at photographs of their sweethearts
and then neutral photos that called for no positive
or negative feelings. When the researchers were
able to look inside the brain in love, they
said they were struck by the results.
The part of the brain that lit up the strongest
was that associated with rewards and pleasure,
a finding not nearly as poetic as romantics
would have thought. It turns out that, to the
brain, love is just another reward, much like
chocolate or money, or like a drug to an addict.
This brain system gets used every time you want
Romantic love, it turns out, is a reward, the
"We certainly think of romantic love as
something that's magical, and the magic is here
and here," Brown said, pointing to the
part of the brain that lit up during the experiment,
the brain stem region known as the ventral tegmental
area. There, pigmented cells known to contain
dopamine send messages to a part of the brain
called the caudate nucleus.
When Brown started the study, she said she
thought she was studying a strong positive emotion.
"Now I have changed the way I think about
early-stage romantic love," she said. "It's
a motivation; the person [we're in love with]
is a goal. Emotions come and go. We feel euphoria,
but we feel anxiety, too. This core system that
is driving the person who is in love toward
their sweetheart, that is much more important
in a sense than an emotion."
Aron added, "When you're intensely in
love, and especially if it's being reciprocated,
there is an incredible sense of exhilaration.
You feel this person is the most wonderful person
in the world, and if they were part of you --
if you were together -- your life would be perfect."
Fisher agreed: "Romantic love is not only
an emotion, it's a basic mating drive, and it's
stronger than the sex drive."
Although the early characteristics of romantic
love don't last forever -- the pounding heart,
the obsessive thinking and craving -- in good
relationships they will transfer to a different
level, a stage of love called "attachment,"
In her own studies of more than 800 people
older than 45, Fisher found that they showed
just as much romantic passion as those under
In fact, romantic love can be triggered at
any age. Fisher said she interviewed an 8-year-old
boy who perfectly described his intense passion
for an 8-year-old girl. She said she also knows
couples in their 70s and 80s who are madly in
When asked if placing love under a microscope
takes away some of the mystery and romance,
"You can know every ingredient in a piece
of chocolate cake, and you still sit down and
eat that chocolate cake and it's wonderful,"
she said. "In the same way, you can know
all the ingredients of romantic love and still
feel that passion."