February 04, 2004
What Brain Scans Of People Falling In Love Tell Us

Rutgers University evolutionary anthropologist Helen Fisher has writtern a new book titled Why We Love : The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love In a very interesting interview she discucsses results of her functional MRI (fMRI) brain scans of people in the early intense stages of falling in love.

On average, men tended to show more activity in two regions in the brain: One was associated with the integration of visual stimuli and the second was with penile erection. This really shouldn't come as a surprise. Everybody knows that men are highly visual -- men spend their lives commenting on women, looking at porn, and the like. I believe these visual networks evolved 1 or 2 million years ago because men needed to look at a woman and size up her ability to give him healthy babies. If he saw that she was young and healthy and happy, it would be adaptive for him to become aroused to start the mating process. Men definitely fall in love faster than women -- there's good psychological data on that. And I think that's because they are more visual.

And women?

Several regions associated with memory recall became active. And I couldn't figure out why at first, and then I thought to myself, my goodness -- for millions of years women have been looking for someone to help them raise their babies, and in order to do that you really can't look at someone and know whether they're honest or trustworthy or whether they can hit the buffalo in the head and share the meat with you. You've got to remember what they said yesterday, what they said three weeks ago, what they gave your mother two months ago at the midwinter festival. For millions of years women have had the hardest job on earth -- raising tiny helpless babies for as long as 20 years. That is an enormous job. There's no other animal on earth for whom motherhood is so complex. And if their husband died they'd have to expend an enormous amount of metabolic energy to find another one, and they're that much older, and the clock is ticking -- it's an adaptive strategy to remember all these details.

Fisher comments that the use of Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) as antidepressants may reduce the capacity for falling in love by blocking some of the changes in serotonin metabolism that normally happen while one is falling in love. Regardless of just how well existing SSRIs produce this effect if they can do it at all this suggests that drugs can be developed in the future that can totally block falling in love. It also seems likely that the opposite effect could be aimed for. The love potion of mythical tales may eventually be attainable through coming advances in pharmaceuticals.

Fisher is also the author of Anatomy of Love: A Natural History of Mating, Marriage, and Why We Stray.

Update: Fisher's interview reminds me of an idea that I've been wanting to get out into the public realm for a long time: We need drugs that will keep people happily married. The cost of divorce and illegitimacy for society is terrible. In some societies marriage for child-rearing is becoming the exception. This means childen are less well cared for and they do not turn out as well in terms of educational attainment, crime rates, and general success in life. Split ups of households lower the living standards as it costs more to maintain two separate households. If we accept the evolutionary psychology argument about why people fall in and out of love it seems to me that the problem is that humans have not been selected for to behave in a way most optimal for extended child-raising and this problem needs to be fixed pharmacologically. Everything from the declining strength of religious belief to the mass media portrayals of tempting objects of affections are reducing forces holding marriage together with tragic results.

We can not fix this problem with gene therapy because that is going to take a lot longer to develop. Many potential gene therapies will have to be done on fetuses and therefore their results will not be felt until the babies grow to be adults. Also, many people might oppose the idea of genetically engineering their children to be highly monogamous and faithful by nature But we might be able to keep people together with pharmaceuticals.

Take whatever biochemical state people have in the initial flush of love. Imagne being able to maintain that feeling for years with both partners agreeing to do so together. Imagine a drug which. if you took it while looking at a particular person, that person would, as a result, look very sexy to you. Think about how much happier everyone would be if they weren't all walking around thinking that the grass looked greener on that unattainable other side of the river. Imagine that the sexiness of a lover never wore out or got old. A lot of married people would stay together a lot longer and long enough to raise kids to adulthood of they could use drugs to maintain their attraction to each other.

Science may eventually be able to produce the love potions of mythical stories and modern fantasy TV shows and movies. Love drugs could help prevent and reverse the decline of marriage. If this became possible the benefits would be substantial.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2004 February 04 01:35 AM  Brain Love

Dick Thompson said at February 4, 2004 9:53 AM:

Fisher's comments suggests that she buys into the feminist perspective totally, which in turn makes me uneasy about her science. I suppose the fMRI results are hard data, but clearly they have to be interpreted, and she sounds like a biased interpreter.

Regarding the visual component for men, I have a personal account and explanation. Years ago I fell head over heels in love, and I was bemused to notice that just as the songs said, everything seemed brighter. Analyzing more finely, I concludied that my edge detection systems were enhancing everything's outline.

My own explanation to myself ran like this. Chimapnzees are our closest relatives. Chimpanzee females go into heat, with noticable color changes. Presumably chimpanzee males are hardwired to respond to this by highlighting it in the visual system. Suppose we have an ancestor common with the chimpanzees in which this mechanism was in place. Then in our evolutionary line the function was lost, but not the neural basis for it. So then that basis could be tripped by hormones or whatever associated with falling in love and produce the effect I saw. That would agree with Fisher's fMRI data too.

Steve Sailer said at February 4, 2004 7:48 PM:

There are a lot of different kinds of post-partum depression, and quite a few women come down with depressions while raising small children. Anti-depressants can sometimes help this feeling of malaise from wrecking a marriage.

Kimberly said at April 16, 2004 3:38 PM:

The drug that you are referring to is called ECSTASY. The drug, was synthesized in the early 50's by Alexander Shulgin. It was used by psychologists to treat problems that were affecting couples. The drug, when in it's natural form and used in small doses produced a sense of euphoria and empathic feeling closely resembling the state of falling in love- if not more intense. Ecstasy affected the reuptake of seratonin and people experience the soul mate feeling with their loved ones. Problems seemed to fade, though they were not gone- only suppressed. The drug became illegal and now scientists and researchers from MAPS have gotten the okay from the govt. to continue performing experiments with the drug, because they feel it has such benefits. But I must tell you, a person taking any drug cannot maintain that high for an extended period of time. As with all drugs, you become tolerant and the drug cannot produce that sense of euphoria like when it was new. Ecstasy is very similar to falling in love. The "high" fades and you need more and more of the drug to feel even anything like the first time- unless you discontinue using the drug for a while. Also, when you fall in love and are around the same person day after day, you become tolerant to that person and those feelings of the "intense love" begin to fade. The problem with society is that they are continually disillusioned after that "love" fades and continue to be addicted, so they look elsewhere. People need to learn to appreciate the security and real love that follows- the love that is subtle. Because no matter, intense love can never last indefinitely- it's fairytale. People think if they keep searching, they will eventually find their "soul mate", but this is illusory. People just need to realize this fact.

lycorya adams said at August 1, 2004 10:56 PM:

so my question is it easier for older men to fall in love with younger women in their late 20's if their in there early 40's?

Miles said at June 25, 2005 9:43 PM:

Some corrections to Kimberley's comments. MDMA, or ecstasy, was first produced in the late 1890s. However, it was redeveloped by Merk in 1914 and was patented but never used medicinally. Alexander Shulgin resynthesized MDMA in the late 1960s and after personal experimentation of the drug he recommended it to the psychiatric community. MDMA was used successfully to treat couples that were having relationship difficulties and later used to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Its direct mode of action is the reversal of the serotonnin pump, whereby the chemical binds to receptors on the nerve cell and initiates the release of serotonnin into the synaptic cleft. It also interacts with other neoron receptors, increasing levels of dopamine, reducing anxiety, softening of the ego, as well as inducing feelings of euphoria, elation and empathy. Prior to criminalisation of MDMA, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) became aware that the drug was being used outside of its therapeutic range in 28 states. The drug's effects proved popular to the wider community and the DEA saw this as a problem. Against recommendations by the psychiatric and medical communities in the US and a federal court ruling recommending that MDMA be scheduled as a class III drug (prescription use only), the DEA in 1985 scheduled the drug as a class I drug (no medicinal properties, illegal to possess, manufacture or use). The war on drugs has made MDMA highly controversial, despite evidence that the drug has many therapeutic potentials. In the Netherlands, Sweden and Spain, medical institutions and government bodies have recommended that the drug be classed as a soft drug and some of these countries are pushing to decriminalise it so it can be used for medical purposes. When people read literature on MDMA, they should look at both sides of the coin and investigate sources that provide arguments both for and against the use of MDMA so that they can make an informed and balanced decision on the value of the drug.

abimbola said at October 1, 2005 10:31 PM:

I like to love girls, but onece they left me alone i gonna going crazy. please what can i do t

Lamar Cole said at January 12, 2006 1:50 PM:

Just like the wings of a peacock, real love can be so fascinating.

Rebecca Goehner said at March 16, 2007 11:08 AM:

I don't really agree with the laws that have made most street drugs illegal, because illegalized drug busts just increases the prisons' populations (especially in CA)with people that commit victimless crimes. It is the illegality behind street drugs, and the cost of them, that create or foster most all crimes behind street drugs.

However, as far as suggesting that couples all take Ecstacy to fall in love and keep society together, I can guarantee you this: WHENEVER MAN TRIES TO CHANGE WHAT GOD HAS PUT IN MOTION AS A NATURAL ORDER OF THINGS, HE NEVER GETS IT RIGHT. WHY?? BECAUSE MAN CANNOT IMPROVE ON WHAT GOD HAS MADE PERFECT.

This probably sounds like religious bullshit to you. But guess what, I'm not religious. Substitute the word "God" for "Nature" if you like.

I learned this fact from my Regents testing throughout high school. It is a major theme in the testing questions. Why?? Because it must be really important to the people that know the most, that their regents know this.

If you think about it, it's true. Whenever man tries to fix some natural disaster he has created by using an approach other than removing his cause from the equation, he always ends up messing it up more. At the very best, the new way doesn't work.

I'm not saying that society is perfect. I'm saying that the hormones are perfect. No one wants to improve the feeling of falling in love, do they?? They just want to extend that feeling. The guy that created "Esctasy" must have got quite a few slaps on the backs from his peers, because he found a way to make girls walk around horny all of the time like young guys do. (Yaahoo.)

However, as men and women get older, that feeling of a subdued love is in keeping with what is necessary in nature. Do you really want your grandma to have children just because her period hasn't stopped yet?? Heck, mabe the hormones she can take by then will keep her period coming - you never know.

Also, when people get older their prioities usually change. It is more comfortable to be comfortable in your life by making more of your own money and stuff like that: Things that makes you feel secure on your own or in society as a couple, than it is to worry about walking out of the house without your makeup perfect. Also, everyone's husband would be looking at everyone's wife, and vise versa. Who's to say that love shouldn't be shared, right? For example, just look at the 60's. With all of the fatal vineral diseases now, do you really think a mass love in would be in our best interests.

So, whoever wrote this original article, cudos for you - it does raise some good arguments, but step outside the box dude (and I'm sure you're a guy.) You need a reality check.

Think about it. It's true.

any other factors to consider? said at October 29, 2007 10:19 PM:

Well, yes, all I'm seeing around here is "WHY WE LOVE", but can you tell us "WHY LOVE CHANGED"? If this can also be explained by science, from a physiological/chemical perspective.

Also, do you think online dating changed the way people fall in love? Do you think it sort of break the natural law of this issue?


illogical passion said at October 29, 2007 11:02 PM:

Fisher has that 3 stages of falling in love theory, but personally I believe love is illogical. Perhaps the most illogical part of human life. If it has a "formula" like the 3 stages theory, then can we "program" people to fall in love?

Bridgette said at February 8, 2010 2:03 AM:

I fell head over hills for a guy while we were popping E on a daily basis together. This is the reason I looked up this info on the net. Now I'm becoming suspicious of him. I think he intentionally lured me into this situation!! He's a very smart guy and I don't know what his intentions were for this. Now I haven't done E in months, but I still love him intensly. But our relationship is very rocky. He doesn't seem the same n e more either, as if he did it purposely too.

Bob Badour said at February 8, 2010 6:48 AM:


Have you researched whether discontinuing E use contributes to feelings of paranoia?

Auriol said at May 5, 2010 11:58 AM:

Proust said that love is 'a reciprocal torture'.

I agree. Love hurts.

Esther said at September 4, 2010 8:39 AM:

Bravo for the drug against love!! Go scientists, keep it up!!! Woohoo!!!

carol b said at August 18, 2015 3:48 PM:

I love the idea you're pushing that a love drug could improve marriage success rates (see what i did there?) but gotta wonder too just to play devils advocate a minute isn't that kind of taking the responsibility away from the people and putting it in bottles? Sure medicines improve life and all. But is medicating the real answer? ..... of course maybe you just medicate one or two generations and sustained marriages become more norm because the medicated parents are providing proper context for their young to imitate without the need for meds?

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