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The Science of Falling in Love

By Benedict Carey
Los Angeles Times

Scientists for generations have studied the peacock feathers of human mating, the swish and swagger that advertise sexual interest, the courtship dance at bars, the public display. They've left the private experience - what's happening in the brain when we fall for someone - mostly to poets.

We know there's an inborn human urge to mate. Love is a mystery, a promise, an arrow from Cupid's bow.

Yet recent research suggests that romantic attraction is in fact a primitive, biologically based drive, like hunger or sex, some scientists argue.

While lust makes our eye wander, the researchers say, it's the drive for romance that allows us to focus on one person, though we often can't explain why.

Answering age-old questions

The biology of romance helps account for how we think about passionate love, and explain its insanity: why we might travel cross-country for a single kiss, and plunge into blackest despair if our beloved turns away.

This view of romantic attraction rests on observations of passionate behavior across cultures, studies of animals during courtship and, most recently, findings by scientists studying the human brain.

Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines to peer into the brains of college students in the throes of early love - that crazed, they-can't-think-of-anything-but stage of romance - scientists have developed some of the first direct evidence that the neural mechanisms of romantic attraction are distinct from those of sexual attraction and arousal.

"What we're seeing here is the biological drive to choose a mate, to focus on one person to the exclusion of all others," said Helen Fisher, an anthropologist at Rutgers University in New Jersey, who spells out the biological basis for romantic attachment in a paper in the journal Neuroendocrinology Letters.

"Let's say you walk into a party and there are several attractive women or men there. Your brain is registering this attraction for each one; then you talk to the third or fourth one, and whoosh -- you feel something extra."

Fisher's group is analyzing more than 3,000 brain scans of 18 recently smitten college students, taken while they looked at a picture of their beloved.

A similar study

She expects the results to build on findings of English researchers who recently completed a study of young men and women in love.

When shown a picture of their partner, their brain activity pattern was markedly different from when they looked at a picture of a close friend, reported neurobiologists Andreas Bartels and Semir Zeki of University College London.

The pictures showed that romantic attraction activated those pockets of the brain with a high concentration of receptors for dopamine, the chemical messenger closely tied to states of euphoria, craving and addiction.

Biologists have linked high levels of dopamine and a related agent, norepinephrine, to heightened attention and short-term memory, hyperactivity, sleeplessness and goal-oriented behavior.

When they're first captivated, Fisher argues, couples often show the signs of surging dopamine: increased energy, less need for sleep or food, focused attention and exquisite delight in the smallest details of this novel relationship.

This power is enough to warp judgment in otherwise sensible people. Newly smitten lovers often idealize their partner, magnifying the other's virtues and explaining away their flaws: She is the funniest person I've ever met. He's moody because of his job.

'Pink lens effect'

This behavior, sometimes called the "pink lens effect," is often sharply at odds with perceptions of friends and family, psychologists say.

New couples also exalt the relationship itself. "It's very common; they think they have a relationship that's more special, closer, than anyone else's," said Berscheid, a leading researcher on the psychology of love.

Yet some idealization may be crucial to building a longer-term relationship, said Pamela Regan, a researcher at California State University, Los Angeles, and the author of the recently released "The Mating Game."

"If you don't sweep away the person's flaws to some extent, then you're just as likely to end a relationship or not even try," she said.

"This at least gives you a chance. If you think of romantic attraction as a kind of drug that alters how you think, then in this case it's allowing you to take some risks you wouldn't otherwise."

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