One of my favourite scientific advances in the last 20 years is the ability to take pictures of the brain and its circuitry in action, and what this continues to teach us about how we are wired and therefore why we do what we do.
Anthropologist Helen Fisher is a leader in this area and has extensively studied what happens in the brain as it relates to love. She has differentiated 3 types of love, that each have their own areas of the brain that light up:
1. Sexual attraction or lust – Fisher describes as more like an actual “drive” like hunger, and just like hunger is required for your survival (if you don’t eat you will die). Sexual attraction or lust, (driven by estrogen and testosterone) is required for the survival of the human race. You can have a number of people who you are sexually attracted to but in humans we usually put it together with at least one of the other types of love.
2. Romantic love – is the term Fisher uses to describe that “falling in love” feeling. She says that, “despite what people say about it being a cultural phenomemon - and I'm sure it has large cultural ties - it is found in every culture and people who experience it have elevated levels of dopamine and norepinephrine production, so it is measurable”. Dopamine works in the brain to activate the brains reward and pleasure centres and norepinephrine is similar to adrenaline and produces the racing heart and excitement. According to Fisher, together these two chemicals produce elation, intense energy, sleeplessness, craving, loss of appetite and focused attention.
3. Long term attachment - Since dopamine production is by nature somewhat short term, Fisher suggests that we evolved long term attachments (related to the brain chemicals oxytocin and vasopressin) in order to stay together to raise offspring. These chemicals are associated with social behavior, social memory and pair-bonding including parental love and care. You can have long term attachments to people that will never lead to either lust or being "in love".
Interestingly, what Fisher also found is that because each of these types of love light up a different region of the brain it is possible to feel each of them for 3 different people at the same time!
Of course what we are looking for in our marriage or committed relationship is all 3 types of love with the same person. I call this Reality Love - the Reality part is realising that none of this comes without work and a conscious decision every day to continue to put the effort in and do that work, because what generally happens in a long term relationship, is that the attachment love takes over and the other two take a back seat. Encapsulated by the phrase “I love them but I’m not in love with them anymore” people often take this to mean the relationship is doomed. On the contrary it just means more work is needed to keep all 3 alive.
Calling it work might make it seem hard, but actually it’s easy when you know how and those brain chemicals that Fisher talks about gives us a massive break in this area – each of them could be a blog in themselves (stay tuned) but here are a couple of ideas to get you started this weekend…
High Energy Fun - One of the easiest ways to bring back the romantic love feeling is to engage in some exhilarating high energy getting the pulse rate up fun together – what you think is fun will be up to you but the idea is that you have to do it together, get your pulse rate up (by at least a little) and you have to find the activity exciting and rewarding… jogging or going to the gym together, bush walking or even just walking the dog, sailing, learning a new skill together, dancing, play a sport together, go cart racing, lasertag, bowling, or a console game that requires movement like Just Dance, jumping on a trampoline, water fight…get the idea…create your own list.
Sex – the best combination of all the chemicals of all 3 types of love that there is. Need I say more.