This is what love does to your brain

This is what love does to your brain

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What happens to your brain on love? Is there such a thing as “casual sex”? What do we get wrong about male and female sexuality? An expert explains. VICTOR DE SCHWANBERG/Getty Images/Science Photo Library RF

What happens to your brain on love? Is there such a thing as “casual sex”? What do we get wrong about male and female sexuality?

Fisher is a biological anthropologist, the chief scientific adviser to the dating site Match, and the author of several books including Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love.

She’s written six books about human sexuality, gender differences in the brain, and how cultural trends shape our views of sex, love, and attachment. Fisher, in other words, has spent a lot of time thinking about the role of sex and love in human life.

So I reached out to her to find out what she has learned and how it undercuts a lot of our conventional ideas about sexuality and gender.

I also wanted to know what distinguishes love from attachment, and why she thinks there are three simple things you can to do maintain a happy relationship.

Helen Fisher

It’s a fascinating question. My colleagues and I put over 100 people who had recently fallen in love into the brain scanner to understand what’s going on in their brains.

We found that in almost all cases there was activity in a tiny little part of the brain called the ventral tegmental area (or VTA). It turns out that this brain system makes dopamine, which is a natural stimulant, and then sends that stimulant to many other brain regions.

That’s what gives you the focus, the energy, the craving, and the motivation to win life’s greatest prize: a mating partner.

Sean Illing

And the experience of love, at the level of the brain, is different from the experience of sex or from feelings of attachment?

Helen Fisher

The sex drive is largely orchestrated by testosterone in both men and women, but romantic love is orchestrated by the dopamine system. I see romantic love as a basic drive that evolved millions of years ago to focus your mating energy on just one individual and start the mating process.

The sex drive motivates you to look for a whole range of partners, but romantic love is about focusing your mating energy on one person at a time.

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Sean Illing

So being in love is like being hooked up to a perpetual dopamine drip, and you get a little hit every time you see the person or touch them or think about them?

Helen Fisher

Dopamine drip – I love that phrase! I haven’t heard that before; it’s a great way to put it. But the dopamine hits occur even when you’re not with the person.

You can think of love as an intense obsession, but it’s really an addiction. You think about them all the time; you become sexually possessive; you get butterflies in the stomach; you can read their emails and texts over and over again.

But I say it’s an addiction because we found that, in addition to the dopamine system being activated in the brains of people in love, we also found activity in another part of the brain called the nucleus accumbens.

This part of the brain is activated in all forms of behavioral addiction – whether it’s drugs or gambling or food or kleptomania. So this part of the brain fires up in people who have recently fallen in love, and it really does function like an addiction.

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