With the Christmas season coming to a close I’m sure at least half of you have regressed into a state of festive denial; eating miscellaneous New Year’s leftovers, the little remaining chocolate left from your stocking, refusing to get out of your pyjamas and rewatching the Christmas classics on repeat for no good reason. Just me? Okay.
One of the Christmas classics I found myself watching (incessantly) was Love Actually – that family favourite where Hugh Grant flawlessly boogies to ‘Jump for my love’, Keira Knightley totally chooses the wrong guy and the guy who now plays Jojen Reed in Game of Thrones is a 10 year old kid drummer who, at 5ft tall and with no prior planning, somehow foils airport security for the one he loves. That got me thinking, what actually is love? GCSE Biology certainly doesn’t cover love in sex-ed, and all I can remember of my A-Level reproductive studies was a giant, octopus-like diagram of a uterus spanning half the whiteboard. Not very romantic, is it? Our science lessons, never really touching on the intricacies of love, have left us a bit gormless; having to feel our way in the dark until we grow up, join Tinder and swipe right, relentlessly.
So, why do we fall in love? There’s really no simple answer to it, but we can try to classify our speculations into the following categories: Evolution, Hormones and Neurobiology.
Ever pragmatic, science teaches us that love – from an evolutionary perspective – serves the role of forming a loyal and unfaltering family unit which will ensure the survival of offspring. Love drives the over-protective parents of the world to defend their young, the work-addicted Mum to keep providing, or the DIY Dad to build fences and gates to fortify the family home. As long as the kids are safe, healthy and happy, love has played its role.
Males are commonly seen as being the protectors – acting aggressively in order to preserve their family and their young, to prevent competitors from attracting their mate and acting as providers for their family group. Females, on the other hand, are associated with motherhood and as they hold the reproductive ability they also tend to be responsible for choosing a mate, leaving the males to woo. Recently, the binary nature of these gender roles has been challenged and instead it is thought that tool-making, game hunting, gathering and protection of the group was actually shared by both the men and the women of the groups, as it simply would not be feasible for a Palaeolithic man to make tools while simultaneously tracking down dinner.
Nevertheless, on a biological level, the ideal mate would still fulfil criteria specific to their sex. For example, the female hotties of the Palaeolithic would be able to produce and rear healthy young, while also being physically fit enough to gather food. Meanwhile, the male heart-throbs would also be physically fit, good providers while any females were nursing, and hopefully have some extra resources handy. Labour division was not always gender specific, but the division of labour between individuals within a hunter gathered group was crucial in our advancement. Although somewhat elementary in its explanation of gender roles, neglecting many social implications and probably overlooking a number of other contributory factors, these historical roles are still thought to play a part in mate-pairing today and do perhaps shine some light on why we find ourselves attracted to certain people.
Interestingly, men and women vary in their hormone levels when forming a romantic attachment. You know that commonplace joke where a wife counts her husband as one of the kids? It isn’t entirely inaccurate. Women form attachments with both their children and partners with the release of a hormone called Oxytocin. Oxytocin actually contributes to the process of birth and comes in waves throughout labour contractions, peaking at the moment of delivery. This kind of attachment is strong, irreversible, and a bit terrifying. Accounts of mothers whose physical strength seemingly triples when her young are in danger have appeared in newspapers all over the world – a phenomenon known as hysterical strength. Without a fight-or-flight response and a healthy burst of Oxytocin to bring about that familial connection, that protective nature would not exist.
While our female readers who are forming a romantic attachment with a man experience a rise in Oxytocin, our male readers, on the other hand, exhibits only some increase in Oxytocin and instead their attachment primarily relies on the action of Vasopressin, which has also been linked to increased aggression towards other men. Both Oxytocin and Vasopressin are heavily involved in the Dopamine Reward System, which is why, despite our differences, male or female, you all love love.
So, say you’ve fallen in love. This drug-like effect of dopamine has robbed you of all sense. Naturally, all your cognitive, ‘rational’ and down-to-earth parts that you previously prided yourself on have been switched off, and you’ve descended into a beautiful madness. Why? Because this party going on in your brain is generally contained within the subcortical dopaminergic reward system, the same part associated with addiction, leaving your judgement impaired, you emotions high and your decisions impulsive. Basically, you’ve been reduced to drunkenness.
So, what’s really going on in the brain through all this? When we were looking at the hormones behind love, Vasopressin and Oxytocin were introduced as our bonding hormones. Oxytocin is synthesised in the hypothalamus and released via the pituitary gland in response to physical contact with others, which brings about feelings of happiness and trust. Vasopressin, instead, is typically a hormone associated with regulating the blood pressure and plays some part in the stress response. Those ‘drunk on love’ feelings we talked about are usually attributed to dopamine activity in the striatum, the insula and the anterior cingulate gyrus (better write that last one down). While Oxytocin and Vasopressin act on a number of areas of the brain, it is their close association with the Dopamine Reward System that makes the rewards of love a matter of both the heart and the brain.
Oh, and you know that slightly weird, obsessive period when people start to fall for their new love interest? As it turns out, that can also be attributed to the brain. A decrease in Serotonin (commonly associated with OCD) has been linked to the neuroticism seen in those who have fallen in love. Reassuring? Oh, yes.
“Love is merely a madness…” wrote Shakespeare in his play, As You Like It, and rightly so! Poor judgement and rationality, being “blinded by love”, is actually a result of a dampening of activity in the frontal and pre-frontal cortex, limiting our planning and reasoning skills. This is particularly pertinent in the first stages of falling in love, and serves as a good excuse for many a terrible dating decision.
If you want to read more about the neurobiology of love, this article is a good place to start.
The other big question is, what exactly do we fall in love with? After all, a person is an amalgamation of changing personality traits and a series of intricate physical features which make them more (or less) desirable. There must be some magical formula for each of us that tells us who “Mr/Mrs Right” is. You’ve probably heard about the whole “pheromones” theory, and many of you may be able to attest to being attracted to the smell of certain individuals. There’s even a theory that suggests that kissing serves to help us “taste” for evolutionary fitness (see this article for more details…). Hot.
Men and women were questioned on the physical features they prioritised in their partners. Both sexes put physical build as their #1, then 2nd and 3rd on the women’s A-list came smile, then height. Men, on the other hand, prioritised a more general “face” as their 2nd preference, and then “eyes” as their 3rd most important quality. Men were also found to be more preoccupied with physical appearance in their female partners. Women, however, valued social status more. Turns out we’re pretty vacuous as a species.