Why do we fall in love? The science explained


Love, they say, makes the world go around. And all those who have been in love would agree. Those newly in love are like aliens who have just arrived on a spaceship. They are happy all day long (including Monday mornings), talk over the phone for hours at a stretch with their partner instead of simply texting, and go out to meet them practically every day (so much for socializing!). So happy and mirthful is a person in love that you can spot him or her from afar. But why do otherwise rational beings behave so out of character when in love? Why are they willing to fight the world à la Romeo and Juliet just to please their lovers and be with them? Why, in spite of there being plenty of fish in the sea, do they prefer to spend their time with one person, day in and day out? The answer lies in science, at least, partly!
Love is addictive
In her famous 2014 TED Talk, American anthropologist Helen Fisher, leading expert on the biology of love and attraction, referenced her first study of people who were happily in love. According to her, the researchers found activity in the A10 cells of the brain’s ventral tegmental area (VTA) among the subjects. A10 cells are responsible for making dopamine — a chemical released by nerve cells to send signals to each other. The VTA is part of the brain’s reward system related to wanting, motivation, craving, orgasm, and intense emotions relating to love, among other things. In fact, it is the same brain region which becomes active when you feel the rush of addictive drugs and is involved in the early, obsessive stages of love. This is probably why romantic love, much like drugs, is addictive.
But before you get addicted to a person, your brain does a lot of behind-the-scenes work to gauge their compatibility as a lifelong partner. Unlike in the meet-cute romantic films, where the protagonists fall for each other the instance their eyes lock, romantic love is a tad more complicated. Dr. Dinesh Bhugra, Emeritus Professor of Mental Health and Cultural Diversity at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology, and Neuroscience at King’s College London, explains, “Romantic love is influenced by a number of factors, right from physical attraction to emotional attachment with clear cultural and social norms. In the Indian context, couples often marry in an arranged setup and love emerges gradually, rather than at first sight. Similar attitudes, family backgrounds, etc. can contribute to a sense of affection, which gives way to love. Love at first sight occurs, but rarely.”
Fisher and her team of scientists at Rutgers University, USA, categorize romantic love into three types: lust, attraction, and attachment. Each type is governed by a different set of hormones and has evolved to help us couple up and reproduce. This means that though these three emotions or types regularly act in harmony with one another, people are capable of experiencing them independently as well. So a person may express attachment, attraction, and lust towards completely different people.
Driven by the desire for sexual gratification with an appropriate partner, lust has its roots in our evolutionary need to reproduce. At this stage, the human sex hormones — testosterone and estrogen — reign supreme. Although these hormones are often stereotyped as “male” and “female”, both play an important role in arousing both the sexes. In fact, according to Mumbai-based sexologist Dr. Prakash Kothari, “Oestrogen makes a woman a female, but testosterone plays a vital role in the sensitivity of her sexual organs.” According to experts, this stage may begin as soon as you meet a person and can last for up to two years.
• You have a strong sexual desire towards the person, based purely on their physical appearance.
• Looks are the only thing that matter.
• You are lovers, but not necessarily friends.
• You are interested in having sex, but not in having conversations.
LASTS UNTIL: Up to two years
• Be responsible: When you want to initiate sex, keep in mind the three Rs — right, responsibility, and respect. You have a right to have sex with the person you want to, but this comes with the responsibility towards yourself and your partner.
• Use protection.
• Also, respect your partner, yourself, and the act itself.

Attraction motivates individuals to focus their mating efforts on a preferred person. It involves high levels of dopamine and norepinephrine, chemicals which are responsible for making us want to spend more time with our lovers and indulge in sex. The attraction also seems to lead to a decrease in the ‘happy chemical’ — serotonin — that contributes to one’s well-being. This hormone is also known to be connected to appetite and mood and is associated with people who suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder. This has led scientists to speculate that serotonin is the underlying factor for the intense infatuation during the initial stages of love. This is the kind of love depicted in most romantic comedies. According to Gurgaon-based psychologist and relationship counselor Veer Sharma, “Relationships forged on the basis of superficial checklists like degrees, money, physical attraction, etc. eventually fade away. For a relationship to last, both partners need to have the patience to understand each other and connect on an emotional level.” Both lust and attraction are exclusive of romantic attachments, that is to say, you may or may not develop the feeling of love for a person you are physically attracted to.
• You share similar attitudes and world views.
• You feel complete with the person even if they are your polar opposite.
Between 18 months and three years.

It is the last kind of love — attachment — which is the real deal. Attachment is the primary feature of long-term relationships, including parent-infant bonding and friendships, and this is what makes you want to stick around with your partner in spite of their flaws. This emotion is mainly associated with oxytocin and vasopressin and motivates individuals to assume parental duties with their partners. Like dopamine, oxytocin is produced by the hypothalamus and released in large quantities during sex, breastfeeding, and childbirth.
Dr Kothari says, “Many a time, people who are physically attracted to each other construe it as love. But what they fail to realize is that this attraction will last only as long as the lust will. People need to be clear whether they love a person because they like them or they like them because they love them. Love is about affection, warmth, commitment, security, care, honesty, etc.” What is interesting is that men and women vary in what triggers feelings of attachment. According to various studies, while men are more likely to define emotional closeness as doing things side by side, women often view intimacy as talking face to face.
In the end, lust, attraction, or attachment may all be an interplay of various hormones, but each of these feelings arises out of one basic human need — the need for human connection. As Adds Taru Kapoor, General Manager, Tinder, India, says, “This need for human connection is universal and is culture-agnostic. It has always existed and always will.”
• You feel immense affection and warmth towards the person.
• You can share your innermost feelings with them.
• You feel secure in their presence and want to commit to them.
• You want to meet their friends and family.
A long time, after you have moved past the first two stages.
With time, the physical attraction between a couple can wane owing to factors like the monotony, lack of response from a partner, and increased social and financial stress. Doing the same thing with the same person in the same place and manner can become boring. To re-ignite the spark, Dr. Kothari provides the following tips:
• Take an unscheduled vacation.
• On an impulse, take a two-day staycation.
• Don’t take your partner for granted.
• Indulge in the sensuous interplay and avoid sex. If you want to heat things up, simply go for foreplay for two days without any penetrative sex, and talk to your partner about your likes and dislikes.
Love hurts
The hormones that go into overdrive when we are in love also have a dark side to them. For example, sexual arousal appears to turn off regions in our brain that regulate critical thinking, self-awareness, and rational behavior. This includes parts of the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for personality expression, decision making, and moderating social behavior. The dopamine pathway, on the other hand, is responsible for making us emotionally dependent on our partners, which explains why we feel like our support system has crumbled in case of a break-up. Oxytocin, which helps us bond with our partners, is also known to play a role in alienating us from people who do not come from the same cultural group like ours, making them seem foreign. During a break-up, your brain releases cortisol, the primary stress hormone. During this stage, the brain’s regions associated with physical pain light up and make you feel the same pain you would feel if you would have a physical fracture.

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