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What is love?While the rest of us trade pink teddy bears and chocolate hearts, some scientists are putting love under the microscope – and the magnetic resonance imaging machine. But what is it they are studying, anyway?
For this Valentine's Day, LiveScience decided to ask the experts a question once left to early-'90s chart-topping dance hits: What is love?
Here's what they said.
An all-encompassing thirstSlide 2 of 17
An all-encompassing thirstLucy Brown, neuroscientist at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine:
What is romantic love? When it is present, it is like thirst: There is no denying it. When we are in the early stages of romantic love, our thinking and our plans for the day are dominated by it. Although we as individuals differ in our expression of romantic love by being clingy or distant or supportive toward a partner, love can make us all euphoric at times, and driven toward one person. The world becomes magical and the presence of the beloved makes it so.
"Driven toward one person" is the key phrase for me, as a neuroscientist. "Euphoric" is an important word, too. Functional MRI studies show that primitive neural systems underlying drive, reward recognition and euphoria are active in almost everyone when they look at the face of their beloved and think loving thoughts. This puts romantic love in the company of survival systems, like those that make us hungry or thirsty. I think of romantic love as part of the human reproductive strategy. It helps us form pair-bonds, which help us survive. We were built to experience the magic of love and to be driven toward another.Slide 3 of 17
Someone camping in your headSlide 4 of 17
Someone camping in your headHelen Fisher, biological anthropologist at Rutgers University and chief scientific adviser for Match.com:
Love is many things to many people, but I think there are three basic types of love: sex drive; romantic love; and feelings of deep attachment for a partner.
I study the brain. My colleagues and I have put over 60 men and women ages 18 to 57 in a brain scanner (fMRI) to study the brain circuitry of romantic love. So with Valentine's Day here, let's talk about the basic feelings of romantic love. The first thing that happens when you fall in love is that someone takes on what I call "special meaning." Everything about him or her becomes unique. Their car is different from every other car in the parking lot; the street he lives on; the music she likes: it's all special and unique. Some reach this stage much more quickly than others. In fact, in a national survey of U.S. singles I recently worked on with Match.com, we found that 54 percent of men and 44 percent of woman said they have experienced love at first sight.
Once there, you then begin to focus on him or her -- often to the detriment of all around you. The lover is elated when things are going well and suffers from mood swings into terrible despair when their beloved doesn't write or call. Lovers feel intense energy as well as all sorts of physical symptoms, such as a pounding heart, sweaty palms or butterflies in the stomach — the "sweaty palm syndrome." Most are terribly sexually possessive, too — known to animal behaviorists as "mate guarding." But there are three basic traits of romantic love; foremost is intense craving for emotional connection with the beloved. The lover craves to hear those precious words, "I love you." Besotted men and women are also highly motivated to win the beloved. And perhaps most indicative of this state, lovers think obsessively about the beloved. Someone is camping in their head. Many of these symptoms of romantic love are caused by a rise in dopamine in the brain, coursing through primitive brain networks associated with wanting craving, energy, elation and motivation.
This knowledge has led me to conclude that romantic love is a primitive reproductive drive that evolved to enable our forebears (and ourselves) to focus our mating energy on a particular individual and begin the mating process. Of all the philosophers and poets that have described romantic love (and there are many), perhaps Plato described this state the best. He wrote, "The god of love lives in a state of need." Romantic love is a need, a craving, a homeostatic imbalance, a drive to win life's greatest prize: a mating partner.Slide 5 of 17
The glue in the social safety netSlide 6 of 17
The glue in the social safety netDaniel Kruger, evolutionary psychologist at the University of Michigan:
Love is an experience that promotes bonding and commitment with others, encouraging stable relationships that ultimately help facilitate our own reproductive success. Without these experiences, we might be more likely to act in our own short-term self-interest, with detrimental consequences for cooperative social relationships.
The love we feel for our family and friends helps create a social safety net. The love we feel for our romantic partners, including shifts in the different types of love experienced, helps the development and maintenance of a reproductive partnership. This system appears to be designed to generally last until shared offspring no longer require constant parental care. An understanding of this systematic design does not detract from the intensity or reality of these experiences.Slide 7 of 17
A caring urgeSlide 8 of 17