It’s that time of year again! As the weather gets warmer and the flowers grow more vibrant, love seems to be in the air. But what is love? How do we recognize feelings of love, and how do we go about looking for these moments of connection? It turns out that in our ultra-critical generation where instant gratification is the catalyst for most of what we do, the game of attraction and love isn’t much different from the norms of fifty, or even one hundred, years ago.
The smartphone, considered a staple of Generation Y, has always inspired concern for young people’s abilities to socialize “normally.” Do we prefer to connect to each other superficially through technology rather than in person, and does this affect our relationships, and specifically, dating and meeting new people?
Dr. Eli Finkel would argue that social media, especially “matchmaking” apps such as Tinder, are fostering the dating world rather than hampering it. Throwing out laboriously contrived profiles and fruitless, complicated algorithms for a get-to-the-point, straightforward means to connect with the people in your closest vicinity is Tinder’s greatest triumph. In truth, this stripped-down approach is almost a mirror of an old-fashioned blind date, except with these apps you’ve seen at least one picture of this person and you might know one or two random facts about them based on these pictures. All Tinder does differently is expand your dating pool significantly to those in your closest vicinity, a recipe for logistical dating success.
However, once you’re on one of these “dates,” that is when the real magic begins, and by magic I mean science. The reason many websites with these big, complicated algorithms for connecting couples fail to work is because an algorithm simply fails at understanding what will make one person attracted to another. Dr. Finkel would argue that the only way to really know if two people will be attracted to each other is for them to meet in person. Once this meeting is facilitated (thanks again, Tinder), you might start to experience the first stage of “love:” lust.
Lust, characterized by the craving for sexual gratification, begins in the preoptic area of the anterior hypothalamus. It’s here where your hormones start going crazy and producing other hormones like testosterone and estrogens. Dr. Claus Wedekind, in his famous T-shirt experiment, asked women to rate the odors of T-shirts worn by different men. Wedekind found that the women rated highest the odor of T-shirts worn by men whose genes were the most different from their own. These odors, often understood as pheromones (although pheromones are actually the odorless chemicals that are found in various secretions, like urine and sweat), are a big part of how we mate. Wedekind’s experiment shows that humans are naturally more attracted to those whose genes are the most different from their own, which is extremely beneficial from an evolutionary viewpoint; mating with someone whose genes are very different helps defend against hereditary diseases and ensures a wider range of genes for immunity for the offspring.
But what if you’re looking for more than just lust? Dr. Helen Fisher suggests that mate preference has two fundamental aspects: factors that trigger mate preference (e.g. symmetry, display of resources or fertility, and other biological and behavioral factors that dictate to whom you become attracted) and the emotion system that facilitates mate preference. While biology might help you find a good mate, this emotion system is what makes you fall in love. Intense attraction, a.k.a. romantic love, is characterized by increased energy and focused attention on one person, and is due largely to your monoamine neurotransmitters.
One of these monoamine neurotransmitters is dopamine, a hormone associated with euphoria, loss of appetite and need for sleep, and hyperactivity. Do any of these symptoms sound familiar? When feeling intense attraction, or when falling in love, it’s very common to have such psychophysiological responses as shyness, stammering, accelerated breathing, butterflies in your stomach, sweaty palms, and weak knees, just to name a few, and you have dopamine to thank for that.
The hormone norepinephrine acts in a similar way to dopamine, but because it is associated with increased memory for new stimuli, it may cause a tendency to focus on only the positive aspects of your desired person, often referred to as “crystallization.” A third hormone, serotonin, is often linked to feelings of happiness and satisfaction, but studies have shown that after falling in love, serotonin levels drop. It’s not surprising that low levels of serotonin are also found in cases of obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, and anxiety, which all share some classic symptoms of falling in love.
But we all know that those butterflies and weak knees don’t last forever, so what happens after this first level of attraction passes? This stage is called “attachment,” and is characterized by feelings of closeness, nest building and territory defense (“building a home,” in human terms), shared parental chores, separation anxiety, and reduced anxiety when in contact with your partner. Oxytocin, the same hormone that is released during childbirth that helps cement the strong bond between mother and child, is also responsible for producing monogamous attachment and parenting behaviors in mammals.
A study on the prairie vole, a type of rodent, showed how vasopressin is another crucial hormone in cementing long-term monogamous bonds, and lack thereof can lead to the final stage of a relationship: the breakup. For prairie voles, sex is the prelude to long-term, monogamous pairings, and vasopressin is critical to sustaining these relationships. When vasopressin, released after mating, was suppressed in the male prairie voles, the bond with their partner immediately disappeared, their loyalty and devotion dissolved, and they failed to protect their partners from new suitors.
If you’re even more confused now about how you’re supposed to find “the one” (or anyone even half decent), don’t worry; contemporary science has only gotten a glimpse of all the hormonal interactions hidden in Cupid’s quiver. And be comforted that the next time you’re sniffing sweaty T-shirts, swiping right on Tinder, or just feeling off your game, that love is literally in your genes.