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Looking for love

How science is revealing the roots of romance and debunking myths

By Karen Weintraub
Globe Correspondent / February 6, 2012
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As anyone who has fallen in - or out of - love knows, love is a complex emotion. It can make us dreamy and obsessive, bathe us in peace, and shake us with protective anger. It can blind us to the smell of diapers and inure us to the quirks of adults.

Researchers have searched in vain for a love “spot’’ in the brain, a single area that lights up in a scanner when someone imagines his or her beloved. Instead, what little we know suggests that love involves many parts of the brain and a complex interplay of hormones.

Surveys also show that whom we fall in love with is largely influenced by who we are; our personality traits and values drive our choices.

Here are some facts scientists have recently uncovered about love, a few hunches about how it works, and some new survey data that may help you see your selection of a mate in a different light.

The death of dating

Today’s young people have sex first, and date later, says Justin R. Garcia, an evolutionary biologist with the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction at Indiana University. “I went to lunch with someone when I woke up next to them - that’s what dating is today,’’ said Garcia, also a scientific adviser to the online dating service Match.com.

Sex before love can be a particular problem for young people, who are still forming their identities, are prone to depression and self-esteem problems, and are surrounded by tremendous drug and alcohol use. That combination added to the biochemical reaction triggered by sexual intimacy can lead to coercion and sexual assault, he said.

Baby talk

In recent research spurred by an overheard conversation, Justin Garcia of the Kinsey Institute discovered that two-thirds of all couples speak “romantic baby talk’’ to each other. This chatter is often kept a secret within the couple.

“It’s about having something that’s playful and unique to the couple, like a little secret language,’’ he said. Previous research has suggested that sharing fun activities within a couple floods their brains with the chemicals dopamine and serotonin - heightening the pleasure of the activity, he said.

This romantic baby talk usually happens early in a relationship, before there are actual babies around, Garcia noted.

Romantic myths

New polling data from Match.com suggests that we have a lot of misconceptions about what single men and women want from a relationship.

Only 3 percent of men and 1.4 percent of women just want to date lots of people - the rest hope to form a real relationship. “We’ve got this myth that people go onto these dating sites to have a lot of rolls in the hay and it is apparently not true,’’ said Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist at Rutgers University in New Jersey, who was a consultant on the poll.

Men are also ready to live with a partner faster than women and are more willing to commit to a relationship without feeling sexually attracted to their partner, according to the survey of more than 5,000 American singles, released last week.

“I’ve always maintained that men were more romantic than women,’’ Fisher said. “Now I can prove it.’’

Political attraction

The Match.com survey shows you are the same person in the voting booth and bedroom, said anthropologist Helen Fisher.

Conservative Republican singles are the least likely to condone sex on the first date, and have the fewest sexual encounters, according to the poll - though they are more likely than liberals to reach orgasm when they do have sex.

Conservative Republican singles were also more likely to report that they must have someone of the same political affiliation, religion, ethnic group, values, attitudes about money, and views of marriage. Their partner must also have close family ties.

Liberal singles, on the other hand, look for someone with a sense of humor, a sense of independence, a similar level of education, mutual respect, and someone who is comfortable communicating their wants and needs. They are also more open to dating someone with a different background.

Don’t go into a relationship thinking you can convert your conservative partner into a Democrat, or convince someone with liberal values to vote Republican, Fisher said. “They’re not going to change - liberal Democrats not any more than Republicans.’’

It's a chemical thing

Scientists have been studying the prairie vole, a species of rodent that differs from other voles mainly because of its monogamy. Biochemical differences among vole species have helped scientists pin down the brain chemicals involved in human love, including dopamine, vasopressin, and oxytocin (not to be confused with the painkiller OxyContin). These chemicals can relax your mood, boost trust, and enable you to better read social cues. But they can also make you more aggressive, attentive, and stressed.

Emotional connection

The closer you feel to someone, the more similar your emotions will be, said Christian Keysers, a professor at the University Medical Center Groningen in the Netherlands and author of “The Empathic Brain.’’

“This means that as you get very close to someone, as you do in a romantic situation or towards your child, the more you will share the emotions of that person,’’ he said. “The more your two brains become one connected whole.’’

Scanning for love

Love is impossible to pinpoint in a brain scan. It’s much more complex than recognizing a face (which has a couple of dedicated spots on the brain) or feeling pain (which lights up a few areas in particular). So far, scanning research has been inconclusive.

Love has traditionally been very difficult to study - how do you come up with a definition that encompasses the love between a parent and a child or two spouses, and among friends?

Kayt Sukel, whose book, “Dirty Minds,’’ about the science of love, was released in January, said the science of love is finally beginning to make real progress. “Even though we don’t have answers, we’re starting to figure out what kind of questions we need to ask,’’ she said.

Researchers have been reluctant to study love, because it didn’t seem “serious’’ enough. But that’s changing, said the Kinsey Institute’s Justin Garcia - for the better.

“Love drives people to madness. People kill over love. They’ll give their lives over love,’’ he said. That’s all pretty serious stuff, he said, and scientists need to do more to figure out “how it’s affecting all of us.’’

Broken-hearted

Just lost a loved one? Pay close attention to your heart. The risk of having a heart attack is 21 times higher than average the day after a loved one dies, and remains four times higher a month later, according to a study published last month in the journal Circulation.

Grief is known to cause stress, anger, and anxiety, all of which can elevate blood pressure and heart rate, which then can increase the risk of a heart attack, said Elizabeth Mostofsky, a postdoctoral research fellow at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, who worked on the study.

Don’t ignore chest pains while grieving, Mostofsky warns.

Karen Weintraub can be reached at karen@karenweintraub.com.

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