[Level 2: Comfort]


Why we love

Anthropologist Helen Fisher is a research professor and member of the Center for Human Evolutionary Studies in the Department of Anthropology at Rutgers University.

Her research is focused on the evolution and future of human sex, love, marriage, and gender differences in the brain and behavior.

Her research has led her to conclude that romantic love is not simply about emotions, but rather that it is more like a hunger that needs to be satisfied.

In her book, Why We Love, Fisher examines the reason humans experience sleeplessness, mood swings, and obsession when they fall in love.9 These experiences appear to be equally present across time, geography, and gender.

Fisher’s research involved scanning the brains of test subjects, including seventeen people who had just fallen madly in love, fifteen who had just been dumped, and seventeen who reported that they were still in love after an average of twenty-one years of marriage.

As a result, Fisher proposes that humans developed systems for meeting and reproduction that include lust (sex drive or libido), attraction (the intense early-stage, romantic love), and attachment (deeper feelings of union with a long-term partner). 

Fisher also proposes that love can be triggered by any of these three feelings. For example, some people have sex with someone new and then fall in love, while others will fall in love first and then have sex.

Some people might feel a deep attachment to each other, and this may become the stepping-stone that leads to sex; however, the sex drive has evolved to encourage mating with a range of partners, while romantic love has evolved to enable people to focus their mating energy on one partner at a time.

Attachment evolved to enable humans to form a pair-bond and raise children as a team.

Fisher suggests that romantic love is a stronger drive than libido: “ After all, if you casually ask someone to go to bed with you and they refuse, you don’t slip into a depression, commit suicide or homicide—but around the world, people suffer terribly from romantic rejection.”

Brain scans also reveal differences between male and female brains. For example, there was more activity in the brain region associated with visual stimuli in men, while the women showed more activity in the brain regions associated with memory recall.

Fisher suggests that these differences arise from different evolutionary forces that were designed to help men and women choose the best partner.

Fisher suggests that a male is obliged to assess the potential female partner visually in order to determine whether she is healthy and age-appropriate to bear and rear a child.

However, females cannot necessarily know from a male’s appearance whether he would in fact to be a good husband and father and, therefore, need to remember his past behavior, achievements, and misadventures in order to be able to choose the best partner.

The signs of everlasting love

Barbara Fredrickson at the University of North Carolina has presented research indicating that love may not be that long-lasting emotion that sustains a marriage or the passion seen in young love, but is actually a “micro-moment of positivity resonance.”10 In Emily Espahani Smith’s article, “There’s No Such Thing as Everlasting Love (According to Science),” she writes: “Love is a connection, characterized by a flood of positive emotions, which you share with another person—any other person—whom you happen to contact within the course of your day.”

She goes on to describe these micro-moments with others, including a romantic partner, a child, or a friend. However, you can also fall in love with strangers, colleagues, or your customer service representative in a retail store.

One poll, conducted by Ipsos Global Public Affairs, showed that most married people, or those with a significant partner, think of their romantic partner as the greatest source of happiness in their lives.

According to the same poll, almost half of all single people are looking for a romantic partner and say that finding that special person to love would contribute significantly to their happiness.

However, Fredrickson suggests that this represents a “worldwide collapse of imagination.” She adds, “Thinking of love purely as a romance or commitment that you share with one special person—as it appears most on earth do—surely limits the health and happiness you derive” from love.

Fredrickson asserts that love requires the physical presence of another and has three parts, biologically speaking: mirror neurons, oxytocin, and vagal tone.

When you experience love, your brain reacts in a unique way. Research conducted by Yuri Hasson at Princeton University involved recording a long story told by a woman about her high school prom.

When the researchers played the recording to the participants in the experiment, they scanned their brains at the same time.

Then the researchers told each participant to recite the story, in order to find out who had been listening and who had not. The research indicated that in some cases, the brain patterns of the listener mirrored those of the storyteller after a short period of time, while others needed time to process the story.

In other cases, the brain activity was almost perfectly synchronized. In a small number of instances, the listener was so in sync with the storyteller that his brain activity anticipated some of the storyteller’s brain activity.

This was what Fredrickson refers to as “a single act, performed by two brains.” The so-called cuddle hormone, oxytocin, also plays a role. It is released in large quantities during sex and in small quantities during intimate connection. It causes people to feel more trusting and open.

The vagus nerve is the third component of the physical presence of love, and the part that enables you to optimize your ability to detect, process, and experience love. It is a link between your brain and your heart.

Fredrick- son writes, “Your vagus nerve stimulates tiny facial muscles that better enable you to make eye contact and synchronize your facial expressions with another person. It even adjusts the minuscule muscles of your middle ear so you can better track her voice against any background noise.”

The vagus nerve’s potential for love can be measured by examining heart rate and breathing rate, also known as “vagal tone.” People with a high vagal tone have greater control over their emotions, behavior, and attention. They are more socially adept, more capable of establishing and nurturing connections with other people, and they appear to be more loving.

One objective of Fredrickson’s project is to lower cultural expectations about love that are mostly misguided.

Many of us have notions of love that are not based on the actual physical and mental needs of human beings. And some of us are looking for perfect partners who don’t exist. Yet there are numerous people with whom we can have loving relationships if we allow those micro-moments to happen and let them accumulate into a lifetime of love.