Falling in love is a primal, universal event that has been happening to mankind since time began. It is ingrained within us like hunger and thirst and it is a state of being that we actively seek.
A study conducted by Arthur Aron, PhD., and his colleagues found interesting information about love when they watched brain-imaging scans of a group of college students. The students were asked to think about and look at pictures of their partners. When Aron asked the students to move their attention to a picture of an acquaintance he found that they still could not stop thinking about their partners. Researchers discovered that if they distracted participants by showing them a random number and asking them to count backward for several minutes, they were then able to think about their acquaintances.
The fact that the students had to go to such lengths to stop thinking about their partners demonstrates how powerful a force romantic love is. But what is it that makes us fall in love? How does it happen?
It turns out that brain chemistry has a big role in the way we feel about other people. When we experience pleasure, a chemical in the brain called dopamine is released into our system. This release is part of the reason we have trouble sleeping when falling in love or even thinking about anyone else.
The other love chemical is oxytocin. This chemical is released at different points in the process of love including cuddling and sex. It helps break down emotional walls and creates the attachment we feel when we are falling in love with someone.
Other brain chemicals involved in love are dopamine, testosterone, norepinephrine and phenylethylamine which all work together to bring pleasurable feelings as you gaze into your lover’s eyes. Because we tend to seek that which gives us pleasure, we give greater attention to their source. Love and sex work on the brain in ways similar to a drug.
This combination of chemicals answers part of the question, “what makes us fall in love,” but there is a bit more to it than that.
Everyone is Different
Although emotion areas of the brain are involved in love, love is much more dependent on our personality and attachment style. In Aron’s study, the participant’s felt several emotions when thinking about the person they loved, but the one thing they all had in common was activation of the dopamine-rich regions of the brain. These regions drive us to satiate deep needs, and love appears to be one of them.
For some people, the way a person smells stimulates that dopamine section of the brain. It could be their particular smell or the cologne/perfume they wear. When their scent is paired with a dopamine flush an emotion is triggered and it brings a sense of pleasure. That is why we stop and smile when we get a whiff of their cologne in the air. Smells trigger memories which also help us form attachments.
Love isn’t all in our brain and there is a reason we can’t just rely on brain chemistry when falling in love. People respond to the “chemical mix” of love in different ways that overlap with personality. In psychological terms, these are called attachment styles. Even if we are able to stimulate the right release of chemicals in the object of our affection, his/her attachment style may overrule any connection that is attempting to be made. According to an article written by A.J Harbinger, the hard sciences such as biology and chemistry are cause and effect. You engage in a certain action, certain chemicals are released, these chemicals cause certain effects. However, the soft science of Psychology says that something more personal is happening.
There are four attachment styles and we react with one of them to whomever we find ourselves interested in.
- Secure: This person is generally comfortable relying on people and having people rely on him. This person has no problem being on his own which means he will not hang around places you frequent trying to get a glimpse of you or a moment of your time. A secure person is balanced and does not manipulate things trying to get your attention.
- Anxious: Anxious people tend to have lower self-esteem and are less confident in themselves. They often go overboard on affection and intimacy. People who fall into this attachment style may not be in love with you, but they do become increasingly obsessed.
- Dismissive: This type of person prefers to be on their own. They don’t want a relationship so when an attachment begins to form, their natural tendency is to pull away. Love may be in the air, but they may not welcome it and so they close themselves off and shut their feelings down.
- Fearful: Those who fall into the fearful attachment style have likely experienced trauma or abuse in childhood. This makes them afraid to form deep attachments to other people and they lack self-worth. Often they question the motives of others and shy away from intimacy.
Regardless of what the chemistry of our brain tells us, another’s attachment style may be too much for us to handle and thus will overrule what we think is love.
Two pieces of the love puzzle have been explained and seem to be innate. So, what can we actively do to fall in love with someone? We can pay attention to their signals and nurture their feelings. Just touching and cuddling with someone can trigger a reaction that can make us feel closer to another person. When this act is repeated with the same reaction, a bond forms and the attachment becomes stronger.
We may not be able to conjure up a chemical love potion just yet, but if we pay attention to the habits, preferences, and behaviors of our loved one, and use our knowledge of how the brain works, we can nurture an attraction that will build. This is how we fall in love.
Journal of Neurophysiology (Vol. 94, No. 1, pages 327-337)
Harbinger AJ. The Science of What Makes a Woman Fall in Love With You. Retrieved from http://theartofcharm.com/building-a-connection/the-science-behind-what-makes-a-woman-fall-in-love-with-you/