Love on the brain

Portfolio, Science Writing


“The brain in love” by Helen Fisher

What does the brain in love look like? Literally?

Dr. Fisher compares MRI results of human brains that are both in love and out of love, finding that the most active region on the brain is the ventral tegmental area (VTA), which produces dopamine.

Her talk characterizes romantic love in several different ways:

1. Addiction

I find it fascinating to describe love as a thing that possesses you; an addiction. The dopamine reward system subverts all of our rationality; encourages us to take risks; and leads to increasing tolerance/need for contact with our significant other, withdrawal symptoms when we’re separated, and even relapses after break-ups. She reports that anthropologists have always found evidence  (what kind?) of romantic love in ancient societies. Two temples in Guatemala serve as a prime example of the power and passion of love.

2. Homeostatic imbalance

It’s also interesting to name love as a homeostatic imbalance, or in the words of Plato, “the god of love is in a state of need.” Usually people don’t think of love as a need like food, water, breathing, and temperature regulation, simply because it seems much less tangible.

3. Sex drive

I appreciate that Dr. Fisher contrasts sex drive with the need for romantic love: because of our sex drives, we look for many potential “mating partners,” but because of our drive for romance, we can focus on a single partner. She mentions that more than one hundred animal species that show selectivity when choosing mating partners.

I appreciate her exploration of how scientific understanding of love changes us. She claims that knowing how love works in the brain enhances her appreciation of it, and she also maintains that there is some “magic” to romance that we don’t yet fully understand. So far, researchers have identified only the following factors: sharing a similar level of intelligence, socioeconomic status, and good looks. She believes that the biology of dopamine, serotonin, estrogen, and testosterone also influence mate selection, but there’s no research offered as evidence. She has started a website called, which is an online dating site aimed at matching personalities, but there is no science to it.

Dr. Fisher also suggests that we underestimate the power of the human drive for romantic love, especially the intensification following a rough rejection or break-up. She believes that legal and collegiate institutions currently reflect a misunderstanding of the science of love; perhaps if they understood it better, the laws regarding sexual and partner assault would be different. Okay, but this should never be used an excuse for intimate partner violence.

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