Shakespeare wrote in The Merchant of Venice that “love is blind and lovers cannot see.” More than 400 years later, brain imaging has offered some scientific support to that iambic verse.
Looking at a brain in love is like watching a neurological fireworks display.
The ventral tegmental area and ventral striatum, nestled in the center of the brain, light up excitedly as the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine spring into action, causing a person to have short attention spans, feel giddiness and crave the object of her desire.
A 2005 study by Rutgers University biological anthropologist Helen Fisher and colleagues examined the fMRI brain scans of 17 men and women who reported being truly, madly in love. Each of the images showed the same activity in the brain’s reward system as that which occurs in the brain of a cocaine addict.
What’s more, the love-struck participants could readily tick off traits or characteristics they didn’t particularly like about their beloveds, but under the influence of pleasure-enhancing dopamine and other monoamines, they quickly overlook those faults.
“Once you fall in love with somebody, once they trigger the brain system for falling in love, love is blind, no question about that,” said Fisher, who recently wrote Why Him? Why Her?, which explores the neurological underpinning of romance.
And once people fall in love, they’re essentially at the mercy of the brain’s reward system until the neurotransmitters oxytocin and vasopressin, which are associated with long-term bonding, produce their calming, stabilizing effect.
But before that dizzying dopamine-fueled process even begins, Fisher told Discovery News that people have much more power to decide who’ll receive their affections.
“Love is extremely blind once you’ve chosen your partner, but it’s not so blind while you’re making that choice,” Fisher said. “Basically, this concept of who you choose, it’s like a funnel. At any point, there are breaking points, moments where it’s just not going to work."
Mate selection -- as opposed to being in love -- is fairly pragmatic, in fact.
People subconsciously select mates who come from common socioeconomic backgrounds, ethnicities, geographies, education levels and upbringings.
For better or worse, we tend to pick potential partners who are a lot like us.
So while we’re searching around for a sweetheart, the ball is our court to reject those who don’t share commonalities and mesh with what Fisher calls our “love maps,” or the temperaments and features we develop attractions to from childhood. That way, we don’t fall for just anyone.
“In other words, you and I can walk into a room and if everyone was a Pygmy and came up to our hips, we probably wouldn’t fall in love with them…because they’re too unfamiliar,” Fisher explained.
Gordon G. Gallup, an evolutionary psychologist at State University of New York at Albany agrees that people are generally more drawn to others with mutual interests and backgrounds.
“At least for the development of healthy, long-term relationships, it’s not the case that opposites attract,” said Gallup, an expert in interpersonal attraction.
In addition to the lifestyle and temperamental traits that draw two people together, Gallup’s extensive research has also found that innate physical attraction is far from blind. Instead, it engages all of our senses to detect whether someone is a reproductive match.
Take hearing someone’s voice, for instance.
Gallup and fellow researchers found that for women who aren’t taking birth control, their voices are rated as most attractive during the middle of their cycle when they’re most fertile.
Furthermore, Gallup’s studies indicate that hourglass figures for women and wedge-shaped bodies for men also subconsciously signal greater reproductive potential.
“So first impressions, like when you first meet somebody, involve a convergence of information in the visual domain and the auditory domain,” Gallup said.
When that convergence grabs our lusty attention, and passionate kissing eventually ensues, Gallups says an even more potent information exchange occurs.
“The first kiss may not make a relationship, but it can clearly break a relationship,” Gallup said. “What happens is a lot of information from a lot of different modalities is brought to bear on the first kiss -- the posture, the odor, the extent to which there’s an open mouth kiss, the extent to which there’s an exchange of saliva.”
That intimate interaction subconsciously communicates prospective mates’ genetic and interpersonal compatibility, which explains why human culture has attached such deep meaning to an otherwise unremarkable form of physical contact.
Circling back to Fisher’s research, an explosive, heart-pounding first kiss can ignite that blinding neurological love reaction, activating the dopamine reward system and setting off an addictive response to one’s beloved.
But while humans are hard-wired to fall in love intensely, those neurochemical blinders eventually wear off as we settle into relationships.
Fisher’s studies have also shown that, as with drugs, people develop a tolerance for the neurotransmitters that produce the head-over-heels feelings and excitement of early love.
“By and large, we are an animal that pairs up to rear our young,” Fisher said.
How long that euphoric pair bonding lasts, however, is the more unanswerable question, varying from person to person – or lover to lover, as Shakespeare would probably say.