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What is Love?

We have already seen that there exists individual variations in the way in which we attach: broadly speaking, some attach securely, some attach, avoidantly and some attach anxiously.  This means that different people tend to have different experiences when they ‘fall in love’.  For example, those who attach aviodantly are more likely to try to avoid being overwhelmed by powerful romantic feelings.  However, according to Fisher’s study of 437 Americans and 402 Japanese individuals, for over two thirds of the population, falling ‘in love’ means being ‘taken over’ by quite powerful emotions. 

When falling in love, the individual begins to regard someone as special and unique, focusing vast amounts of attention on their loved one and she begins to focus on her loved one’s good qualities whilst overlooking the bad.  Falling ‘in love’ is also often accompanied by experiencing an extreme increase in energy, hyperactivity, impulsive behaviour, sleeplessness, mood swings and euphoria.  People will often reorder their lives in order to see their loved one more often and they become goal-orientated and highly motivated to win their lovers affections.  A lover also becomes emotionally dependant, to the extent that her self-esteem often becomes somewhat dependant on her loved one’s reactions to her. 

Fisher investigated what regions of the human brain are activated when we are ‘in love’.  Using fMRI (scanning of the brain) to investigate what regions of the brain were activated in a sample of individuals who described themselves as ‘in love’ she found that the right VTA area of the brain was activated when the individual thought of his or her loved one.  The VTA is central to the brain’s ‘reward system’, the part of our brains that creates a sense of general concentration, arousal, pleasure and motivation to pursue goals.  The VTA produces dopamine.  Dopamine is associated with sleeplessness, mood swings, craving, emotional dependence, intense energy and ecstasy.  Dopamine, therefore, probably also contributes to these symptoms being experienced when we are ‘in love’. 

Fisher also proposes that norepinephrine (termed noradrenaline in the UK) and the lowering of serotonin levels may be involved in feelings of romantic love.  Norepinephrine is linked to increase of blood pressure and pounding heart, both of which appear to often be associated with feelings of romantic love.  A very interesting experiment has also been undertaken in which concentrations of serotonin levels were investigated in twenty individuals with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), twenty individuals who had fallen in love within the last six months and twenty normal individuals (control group).  The OCD group and the ‘in love’ group showed lower levels of serotonin.  It is therefore likely that decreased levels of serotonin contribute to the obsessive thinking and impulsivity demonstrated by individuals who fall in love. 

It appears that all birds and mammals experience similar characteristics to humans surrounding the time at which they choose a mate: loss of appetite, affiliative courtship gestures including stroking and nuzzling, sleeplessness, obsessive following, heightened energy etc.  They also show mate preference.  No birds or mammals mate indiscriminately.  It appears that mate preference is associated with increased levels of central dopamine in brain.  For example, it has been found that after a female lab vole mates a male vole, she begins to ‘prefer’ him over other voles.  In his presence there is a fifty percent increase in dopamine levels in the nucleus accumbens in her brain.  This region is a part of the brain’s reward system.  Interestingly, if the accumbens is injected with a dopamine antagonist (this reduces the level of dopamine), the female no longer shows preference for her mate.  Even more interestingly, if her accumbens is injected with a dopamine agonist (this increases the level of dopamine) whilst in the presence of another male vole, she begins to show preference for this vole even though she has not mated with it. 

Fisher proposes that this mate preference evolved in animals and humans so that animals would focus all their energy on one individual, thereby saving valuable courtship time and energy.  She also proposes that mate preference is the forerunner of the human cognitive process we call ‘romantic love’.