The science of falling in love

The science of falling in love

When it comes to falling in love, we like to believe in that cute notion that it’s a chemical thing. But what’s the real reason behind the funny feelings you get when you fancy someone? How do you explain sweaty palms, butterflies and the crazy things we do while in the grip of a wild sexual torment? And does love at first sight exist? These quirky studies may have the answers…

Love is a drug
If you’ve become a raging insomniac, can’t eat a bite and the last thing on your mind is finishing off that urgent report, chances are you’re in love – and in the grip of a massive chemical reaction. According to renowned anthropologist Helen Fisher, natural stimulants in the brain kick in to make you feel giddy, euphoric and possibly even obsessive about your new infatuation. “What else could explain the way you constantly think about a person, about the way you want to read them your bad poetry?” says Fisher. So, being in love is akin to being zonked on drugs – but there’s more. To prove that love sends you completely bonkers, people who had been in love for over two years with the same person volunteered to have their brains scanned for a London study. The volunteers were then shown photos of their loved ones, which sent their brains buzzing wildly. Researcher Semir Zeki pointed out that the parts of the volunteers’ brains affected are not only ruled by senses and emotions, but are the same regions hit by euphoria-inducing drugs, such as ecstasy. “Romantic love is, for many people, intoxicating,” Zeki said. That rapturous rush of ‘limerance’ felt in a new relationship doesn’t last forever, but while it does, love can be truly blind, says Dr Rosie King, author of Where Did My Libido Go? “Studies have found when you’re passionately in love, the areas of your brain involved in critical thought are less active,” she says, adding, “It’s a temporary state: 12 to 18 months down the track (sometimes longer, up to about three years), limerance begins to fade.” However, it can last longer if you’re in a long distance love affair or if your partner is married to someone else, or generally unavailable.

Love brings out your inner stalker
If being in love scientifically causes those ‘butterflies in the stomach’ feelings, then it’s no surprise that we feel compelled to do silly things while in the grip of infatuation. Take Romeo serenading Juliet under her window, for instance – he obviously wasn’t bothered by what the neighbours were thinking (and no doubt muttering). “This study makes it exceptionally clear that falling in love is a brain function,” says Dr Thomas Lewis, author of A General Theory Of Love. “This probably is a neurological explanation for why people in love do stupid things. (They) have no judgment and, obviously (when in love) that area of the brain is deactivated.”
Losing that loving feeling doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll lose the urge to do stupid things, but at least you can justify the multiple drive-by-stalker routine outside your ex’s house.

Love’s not to be sniffed at
Some scientists swear by the sweaty T-shirt study, in which women had the fun task of sniffing men’s unwashed shirts and rating them for intensity, pleasantness and sexiness. Results suggested that people were not only able to sniff out genetic differences, but that they would actually zero in on someone genetically different to them. Similar studies have also found that women who are ovulating find the odour of fit, burly blokes more enticing over shorter, possibly pudgier guys. Apparently the appeal of the muscular male dates back to caveman times, when strapping lads fathered strong and healthy children. Still, there will always be skeptics who believe there’s more to choosing a mate than simply finding their BO sexy. And after all, rule one of the dating game is to hide your BO… isn’t it? Not according to some scientists, who say using soap, deodorant or perfume may actually be sabotaging our chances with the opposite sex. Apparently, these mask the natural animalistic scent that would supposedly have the masses flocking to your side. It’s all about pheromones, natural signaling chemicals emitted by a sex organ that lives up your nose. Although these chemicals were believed to be used only by animals who are up for a little horizontal lambada, it seems humans, to a lesser degree, also use pheromones to sniff out potential partners. So don’t be so sure you can’t find Mr Right at your local pub – he may be right under your nose!

Love at first sight
Locking eyes with the hottie at the bar may seem like love at first sight after a few tequila slammers, but how many of us really believe in this phenomenon? Nearly two-thirds, according to author Earl Naumann who wrote Love At First Sight and surveyed 1500 people to do it. Naumann defines love at first sight (or LAFS) as “falling in love with someone within 60 minutes of first seeing them”. More than half the people surveyed who had experienced LAFS got married – and 76 per cent of them are still together.
Fisher says love at first sight relies on a few key points, including that you have to be ready for it. Whoever you’ve clapped eyes on also has to be a bit of a mystery (so obviously life-long buddies are out) – and he or she must fit the bill in what you’re looking for in a lover. How do you know if you’ve experienced love at first sight? Prolonged and intense eye contact is apparently the first sign. However, experts stress that LAFS is not to be confused with lust as it’s about feeling both attracted and attached to the person.

Freelance journo, blogger, self-appointed advice-giver and co-author of Get Lucky. If you've got a dating or relationship issue, feel free to ask a question. (PS. You can also find me at The Mama Files and Letter To My Ex).

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