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Romantic Love: A Basic Human Need?

June 10, 2008 - 7:30am
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Romantic Love: A Basic Human Need?

PD_People and Lifestyles_2307 Falling in love is an intense experience that can leave you feeling breathlessly out of control. Romantic comedies bring in millions of dollars portraying the zany antics of the love-stricken, while daytime dramas intrigue us with the plots and schemes of those in love. Song lyrics describe “love sickness” in all its glory. Just consider the words of “Love at First Sight,” a song by the 1980s rock group the Styx:

Love at first sight

It’s hard to keep your balance

Moving past the point of no return

Romantic Love, Lust, and Long-Term Attachment

Whether you’ve fallen in love at first sight or not, you’ve probably felt the rush of sensations of early romantic love: elation, heightened energy, low appetite, sleeplessness, and the inability to concentrate on anything other than the object of your affection. Brain research has shown that lust and long-term attachment are controlled by specific centers in the brain. It seems reasonable to think that the same centers are responsible for romantic love. But new research has shown otherwise.

Love Is Like…Thirst?

Researchers in New York and New Jersey studied 17 college students who had been intensely in love for a relatively short period of time—17 months or less. The subjects looked at photographs of their beloved while undergoing functional ]]>magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)]]> . Functional MRI is a scanning technique that indicates which areas of the brain are most active at any given moment. The researchers found that the brain region associated with early romantic love was not the region already known to be related to lust or long-term attachment. Instead, the area of the brain most active in early romantic love is one associated with the most basic human drives: thirst, hunger, and craving. This region, located in the caudate nucleus and the ventral tegmental area (VTA), is also involved with reward-seeking and motivation. The VTA releases the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is increased when people anticipate a reward. For example, dopamine sites are more active in gamblers when they score or win.

According to the study researchers, the fact that early romantic love is associated with neural activity in a brain region responsible for our most basic human needs shows that early romantic love is an “important evolutionary reproductive strategy.” It also provides a biological explanation for the intense drive associated with passionate love—explaining why, for example, some people contemplate stalking or suicide when rejected. Whereas lust drives us to find any suitable mate, romantic love pushes us to focus on a particular suitable mate. Later, in relationships that continue, long-term attachment encourages partners to share parenting duties to ensure their offspring survive, thus passing their genes on to the next generation.

Breaking Up Is Hard to Do

In a follow-up study, the same researchers are studying the brain activity of 17 men and women whose partner recently broke off the relationship. The subjects are being assessed with functional MRI as they look at photographs of their ex-partner. Early results indicate that during a break up, brain activity is heightened in areas of the brain near those associated with romantic love. These early findings may explain why being dumped can sometimes intensify romantic love.

According to Helen Fisher, one of the study researchers, “As humans we have a highly motivated drive toward romantic love.” It may not matter to you or your beloved that the source of this drive is the same brain region that motivates you to go find a bottle of Evian or a plate of chocolate chip cookies when you’re parched or hungry. But it may explain why we pay millions of dollars to see "Sleepless in Seattle," "The Wedding Singer," and "Bridget Jones’s Diary." After all, romantic love is as basic to us as eating.


Aron A, Fisher H, Mashek DJ, et al. Reward, motivation, and emotion systems associated with early-stage intense romantic love. J Neurophysiol . 2005;94:327-337.

Fisher H. Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love . New York, NY: Owl Books; 2005.


Aron A, Fisher H, Mashek DJ, et al. Reward, motivation, and emotion systems associated with early-stage intense romantic love. J Neurophysiol . 2005;94:327-337.

Carey B. Watching new love as it sears the brain (May 31, 2005). New York Times website. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/05/31/health/psychology/31love.html?ei=5070&en=ea89015ce84b87b4&ex=1127448000&incamp=article_popular_4&pagewanted=print . Accessed September 21, 2005.

Fisher HE, Aron A, Mashek D, et al. Defining the brain systems of lust, romantic attraction, and attachment. Arch Sex Behav . 2002;31:413-19.

National Public Radio. The evolution of Valentine’s Day. Available at: http://www.npr.org/programs/musings/2004/feb/valentine.html . Accessed September 21, 2005.

Tom Ashbrook. Love is all in your head [transcript]. WBUR. June 2, 2005.

Last reviewed October 2005 by ]]>Lawrence Frisch, MD, MPH]]>

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.