This Is Your Brain in Love

Science reveals that love is not just a human emotion, but a biological need in the brain (and yes, it can make you feel high)

Cortney Clift
Elemental
Published in
4 min readFeb 14, 2020

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Illustration: Kezia Gabriella

LLove is a feeling often associated with extreme hyperbole: It makes you blind, drives you mad, some even say it feels like being on drugs. It’s not surprising that one of the most intense human emotions is given such dramatic associations. What is surprising is that some of them may not be so exaggerated after all.

Over the past 15 years, scientists and anthropologists have made significant advances in understanding the ways feelings of romantic love affect the brain. What they’ve found so far manages to put scientific merit behind the centuries of folklore.

One of the most notable breakthroughs was found during a 2005 study conducted by biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, PhD, a senior research fellow at the Kinsey Institute. In this study, Fisher produced the first functional MRI images of the brains of people in love.

“Hunger and thirst keep you alive today; romantic love begins the mating process and eventually sends your DNA into tomorrow.”

When Fisher put people in the study in a brain scanner, she found that they all experienced activity in a particular brain region called the ventral tegmental area (VTA), a part of the brain that produces the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine. The VTA is also a crucial component of the brain’s reward system, a collection of brain regions and pathways that are activated when exposed to rewarding stimuli.

“What’s interesting to me is that the VTA lies right next to the part of the brain that orchestrates thirst and hunger, both of which keep you alive,” says Fisher. This close proximity led her to classify romantic love as a basic human need rather than an emotion.

“There are a lot of emotions attached to romantic love, but the focus, motivation, craving, and energy that come from the VTA and this dopamine system is a survival mechanism,” she says. “Hunger and thirst keep you alive today; romantic love begins the mating process and eventually sends your DNA into tomorrow.”

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Cortney Clift
Elemental

Cortney Clift is a Brooklyn-based journalist who writes about food, travel, and wellness.