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Disenchanting the Enchanting: The Science of Romantic Love

Stephanie's picture

We first stumbled upon the topic of “The Science of Romantic Love” when we saw the Time Magazine cover from January 28, 2008. This was Time Magazine’s topic of choice for their annual mind and body special issue. At first, we were unsure if the science of romance would be a suitable topic for our Neural and Behavioral Sciences Senior Seminar because of its pop culture nature. However, the topics we encounter in daily life and in pop culture, such as love, can serve as very stimulating topics of discussion in an academic setting as well, and we believe we chose a interesting, controversial topic quite fitting for our seminar.


Background Information

First, we decided to begin our presentation by exploring the fundamental questions: What is love? How did love evolve? Throughout our research and readings, love possessed many different definitions. We chose to discuss Steven Pinker’s evolutionary theory of love and emotion. Pinker views emotions as adaptive strategies important for survival and reproduction, and he views emotions as a means by which we prioritize our goals (Pinker, 1997). Therefore, if we view love as some form of an emotion, we could consider how love functions as an adaptive evolutionary strategy utilized by humans. Pinker views romantic love as a “human universal” that has evolved to promote survival and reproduction among humans (Pinker, 2008, p. 1).


Then, we examined the literature concerning the biological basis of romantic love. Romantic love is associated with specific neurochemicals and brain regions. Specifically, romantic love and attraction is associated with high activity of dopamine and norepinephrine and low activity of serotonin (Fisher, 2004). fMRI studies have identified brain areas activated and deactivated when people view pictures of their romantic partner compared to when they view pictures of their friends of the same gender, age, and relationship length. Brain areas activated include anterior cingulate cortex, cerebellum, insula, posterior hippocampus, putamen, caudate nucleus, and ventral tegmental area (Bartels & Zeki, 2000; Fisher, Aron, & Brown, 2006). Brain areas deactivated include posterior cingulate gyrus, amygdala, and right prefrontal, parietal, and middle temporal cortices (Bartels & Zeki, 2000; Fisher, Aron, & Brown, 2006). Both the caudate nucleus and ventral tegmental area are part of the brain’s dopaminergic ‘reward system’ (Fisher, Aron, & Brown, 2006). In addition, studies of cocaine and opioid induced euphoria also show increased activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, insula, caudate nucleus and putamen, which are the same areas activated by romantic love (Bartels & Zeki, 2000). These fMRI studies posit the idea of ‘romantic love as an addiction’ because the brain areas involved in reward pathways and in euphoria are also recruited in romantic love.


Romanic love often involves a strong attachment between two individuals. Neuropeptides associated with such attachment include oxytocin and vasopressin. In females, oxytocin is associated with mother-infant interaction, partner preference, offspring preference, and nonsexual social contact (Young & Wang, 2004). In males, vasopressin is associated with mating preferences, paternal care, and partner preferences (Young & Wang, 2004). Oxytocin and vasopressin have been studied in prairie voles that form lasting monogamous pair bonds with one another, and, these neuropeptides are also implicated in the monogamous social attachments that humans form in their relationships.


Is there a formula for love? The scientists working at E-Harmony, an online dating site, have made it their mission to help individuals find a life long partner. To do this, they pair individuals that match in 29 “Core Dimensions” of personality, some which include core traits (emotional temperament, social style, cognitive mode, physicality) and vital attributes (relationship skills, values and beliefs, key experiences) ( There are millions of users on e-Harmony alone and almost 90 e-Harmony members get married each day ( E-Harmony is just one of the many online dating sites. However, E-Harmony differs from other sites in that it does not allow its users to browse other people’s profiles. Instead, members complete an extensive survey, totaling 258 questions, and are then matched with specific individuals based on E-Harmony’s secret algorithm of love (Tierney, 2008).


Many individuals joining online dating websites like E-Harmony have the ultimate goal of marriage in mind. Marriages, like almost all relationships, bring with them some pros and cons. Benefits of marriage can include happiness/ bliss, relief from stress, and health benefits, such as high mortality rates (Miller, 2008). Some of the negative aspects of marriage can include divorce, marital stress, and physical inactivity (Miller, 2008). Love and romantic relationships can be extremely rewarding and enjoyable but they also bring challenges.


Central Questions

Many of the central questions were touched upon during class readings, our presentation, and our class discussion; however, some questions provoked more discussion than others.

  • What is love?
  • How did love evolve? Is love evolutionarily adaptive?
  • What is the biological/ neural/ hormonal basis of love?
  • Is love an addiction?
  • Is monogamy (or pair bonding) a natural part of romantic love in humans? Animals?
  • Is there an algorithm of love? Such as those used by online dating sites, like e-harmony
  • What are the potential health benefits of love? Of marriage?
  • Are gay relationships different?
  • What causes break-up of romantic relationships?



Class Discussion- sources included notes from the class discussion and individual class member’s online postings in the online discussion forum (view at /exchange/node/2075)


The multifaceted nature of love poses a challenge when attempting to define or even study ‘love.’ This challenge was echoed in both our online and class conversations. There are many different definitions love in the dictionary, in research articles, and in our discussion about the topic. Love can be companionate or romantic in nature. We can possess love for our friends, family, and romantic partners. In different cultures and countries, love may exist in different forms as well. Love can be thought of as an emotion or a collection of different emotions. Is love a state of mind or a state of being or both? Based on our discussions, the phenomenon of love may be generated by biological, genetic, emotional, social, evolutionary, and social factors. During our discussion, many people echoed that love is universal but is also extremely subjective and personal, which is an inherent contradiction within love itself that makes creating a definition for ‘love’ even more challenging.


Love may in deed be indefinable and mysterious in nature; however, scientists currently study ‘love’ even though there is no universally accepted or single definition. Professor Benjamin Le, our guest speaker from Haverford College, commented that love is so multidimensional in nature that it can be difficult to study. He described how psychology researchers like himself attempt to focus on discrete aspects or functions dealing with love itself, such as commitment or attachment. However, the question arises, should we study love? Our class seemed to have differing opinions. At first, we debated whether something can or should be studied if it cannot be completely defined. Some questioned why we should study love in the first place or thought they really did not want to dissect the mysterious, interesting phenomenon that is love because doing so may demystify the great thing that is love. Others believed that we should take the opportunity to pursue knowledge in any field, including love, because we never know what we may find out. Topics such as the ‘science of love’ attract scientists from many different disciplines, and therefore, such a topic provides an arena for interdisciplinary work to take place, which can be valuable.


When examining the evolution of love, we considered what makes love evolutionarily adaptive. First, emotions appear to play an important role in decision-making and in other cognitive and rational processes. Love, as a specific emotion, may work as a catalyst for our decision-making and, in turn, make the process more efficient and rapid. For example such evolutionary adaptiveness is evident when a mother decides to help her child in dangerous, life-threatening situation out of love for her child, which would promote the passing on of her genes to future generations. Secondly, the health benefits of being married, or in a long-term committed relationship, such as lower mortality rates, happiness, and decreased stress, provide support that love is evolutionary adaptive. Although, we should consider that there may be some third variable contributing to the health benefits of relationships that we are not detecting through this correlational research. Love appears to have been a part of the human experience for thousands of years, and when considering why this emotion has persisted and is universal in nature, a potential answer lies in the evolutionary adaptiveness of love.


From fMRI evidence, researchers have made the claim that love may have addictive qualities because the same ‘reward pathway’ involved in addiction also appears to be involved in romantic love. Love, like other emotions, possesses addicting qualities, and the regulation of emotions often affects reward pathways. This result proved to be controversial in our discussions. No matter the result of the fMRI scan of ‘romantic love,’ researchers probably would come up with a plausible story and would relate the brain areas that lit up in their study with the same areas that lit up in other studies concerning topics associated with some aspect of romantic love. In addition, concerns were raised about the methodology used to determine the neural basis of love because ‘romantic love’ is simply defined as looking at a photograph of a loved one during an fMRI. Therefore, some individuals are skeptical about these fMRI results of ‘romantic love’ and about the conclusion of ‘love as an addiction.’ However, other individuals believe the connection between fMRI studies of addiction and of love and the recognition that both utilize similar brain areas is a valid, logical conclusion to make. Only through the appropriate collaboration of studies can we study specific brain areas and discover their actual functions.


When investigating human attachment, specifically within monogamous relationships, prairie voles are often used an animal model because of the monogamous pair bonds they form. Although oxytocin has been found in female voles and humans and vasopressin has been found in male voles and humans, some individuals in our class expressed concern about using these animals as a model for humans. First, humans generally do not seem to be completely monogamous. In addition, our class discussed how monogamy could be a social construction that has evolved over time. Our perceptions and beliefs about monogamy may also be subject to our cultural and social norms. Humans, at least in today’s world, could be more accurately characterized by serial monogamy, in which they are monogamous with one individual, then after the end of a relationship they become monogamous with another individual. Conversely, prairie voles form an enduring single pair bond with one other vole throughout their lives. Even though humans and prairie voles exhibit different forms of monogamous behavior, both do utilize similar neuropeptides to achieve similar, although not identical, attachment behavior. Animal models can provide useful information, although we should carefully consider how applicable these findings are to humans.


Can romantic love be boiled down to a few hormones, neurotransmitters, and brain regions? Even though we have identified some key hormones, brain regions, and neurotransmitters, these key components interact with many other parts and substances in the brain and body, and therefore, we cannot isolate love to one chemical or brain region. Identifying specific biological substrates of something so complex as love is a difficult, and maybe even impossible, task, especially when we try to figure out the exact neural pathways and processes involved. Discussing love from a neurobiological perspective is attractive to some individuals because it can provide ‘answers’ or help figure out what the elusive subject of ‘love’ actually is in more concrete terms. However, for others discussing love from the neurobiological perspective is disenchanting and inappropriate.


E-harmony raised some serious issues in our discussion. There is a cliché phrase that ‘opposites attract’ in romantic relationships, and this phrase accurately characterizes some couples but not all couples. If E-Harmony is matching people with similar scores on their questionnaires, indicative of similar personalities, then such matchmaking may not be successful with individuals who succeed in the ‘opposites attract’ relationships. In addition, matching such similar individuals may succeed in reducing diversity, which is problematic. If E-Harmony is utilizing research and ‘science’ to create their love algorithm as they claim, then their research should be subject to the same standards used in all other scientific research, such as the peer-review process. However, because E-Harmony is in a moneymaking business, they do not want to reveal their secret, unique algorithm of love, and then, consumers as well as other researchers are unable to know exactly how this formula is being created and its validity. Our opinions differed on whether or not E-Harmony should have to publish their research findings and their specific love algorithm. Such a dilemma could be solved by making all science and research, in all forms and in all places, subject to universal ethical standards. Currently, a universal code of ethics for research and science does not exist; however, the creation and utilization of ethical standards would be useful in all realms of study, including the ‘science of love.’


Future Directions

Some people would prefer to not study or research ‘love’ because they do not see the possible benefits that can come from it or because they would prefer to leave it untouched, mysterious, and enchanting as it already is. However, other people would prefer to study anything they encounter or to study anything related to human experience, including love. There will probably always be disagreement about whether ‘love’ is a topic worth studying. However, currently there are researchers and funding that support the investigation of love. Because love is being researched, it is important to consider future directions this research can take.


When doing future research and when making sense of past research, it may be helpful tackle the question of what love is. Many of us discussed how love is universal but is also individualized and personal, making love difficult to define and study. However, we thought there probably were some commonalities among our definitions of love. Future research could attempt to reveal these commonalities and study them further. In addition, we kept discussing the many forms of love that exist, and it may be helpful to define exactly what forms we believe love can manifest. It would also be beneficial for future research to examine how love may be different and/ or similar between different cultures and countries. Then we can target our research to more specifically investigate each form of love, and hopefully, we will provide more accurate information on love by studying it in its more specified forms.


Exactly how we go about studying love is difficult to decide. However, the topic of ‘love’ draws interest from scientists of varying disciplines, including but not limited to neuroscience, social psychology, biological psychology, cognitive psychology, genetics, microbiology, personality psychology, clinical psychology, evolutionary biology and psychology. Allowing each discipline to investigate love in using the methods they are most well-versed in and then sharing their investigations with other disciplines will allow for collaborative, interdisciplinary research to occur. Such interdisciplinary, collaborative research brings together diverse minds, which often allows for deep, creative insights to occur concerning the topic at hand, the science of love.



Bartels & Zeki (2000). The neural basis of romantic love. Neuroreport, 11, 3829-3834. Online version at*+romantic%22&hl=en&ct=clnk&cd=3&gl=us

E-Harmony. Accessed Feb. 13, 2008 at

Fisher, H. (2004). What is Love? On Air, BBC International Magazine 98:12-15. Accessed Feb. 13, 2008 at

Fisher, H., Aron, A. and Brown, L.L. (2006) Romantic Love: A Mammalian Brain System for Mate Choice. In “The Neurobiology of Social Recognition, Attraction and Bonding," Keith Kendrick (Ed), Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society: Biological Sciences. 361:2173-2186. Accessed Feb. 13, 2008 at

Cloud, J. (Jan. 28, 2008). Are gay relationships different? Time Magazine online. Accessed Feb. 13, 2008 at,9171,1704660,00.html

Miller, G. (Jan. 28, 2008). Marry me. Time Magazine online. Accessed Feb. 13, 2008 at,9171,1704686,00.html

Pinker, Steven. (1997). How the Mind Works. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Pinker, S. (Jan. 28, 2008). Crazy love. Time Magazine online. Accessed Feb. 13, 2008 at,9171,1704692,00.html

Tierney, J. (Jan. 29, 2008). Hitting off, thanks to the algorithms of love. New York Times online. Accessed Feb. 13, 2008 at

Young, L.J. & Wang, Z. (2004). The neurobiology of pair bonding. Nature Neuroscience online. Accessed Feb. 13, 2008 at


Cameron Sharpe's picture


LOVE is TOO STRONG to control your feelings. You may have reasons to engage yourself into a relationship such as this - having a bf or gf older or younger than you are but the thing is, it's all about the commitment and the chemistry of handling a good relationship. These are natural reasons but there's always a deeper basis once you are in that relationship. Just a thought. Thanks for the blog :)


Paul Grobstein's picture

love: definition and universality?

Its interesting that the same issue comes up in studying love as in studying consciousness. Does one need a definition in advance or does the definition emerge from the inquiry? Maybe that in turn relates to the question of whether love (or anything else) is a "universal"?