Romantic love pervades history, geography, and culture. While it may look different from person to person and society to society, the fact remains that this thing called “love” exists in myths, legends, songs, dances, operas, symphonies, and has been discovered in ancient artefacts as well. It’s everywhere — and very real — no matter what the cynics might say.
But while love may be associated with the heart, science shows it’s actually all about what’s going on in the brain.
In fact, biological anthropologist, human behaviour researcher, and author, Helen Fisher, PhD, has devoted her career to understanding exactly that: She was the first to put people in a brain scanner to study what’s going on neurologically during romantic love.
And what she and her team discovered was pretty damn fascinating. Curious about what, exactly, is going on inside a brain in love and how long it takes to fall in love, exactly? Here, Fisher helps break down the science.
The Science of Falling In Love
Although you may think that falling in love might involve a specific formula — step one is a great first date, step two is getting physical, and so on — that’s actually not how it works.
“We tend to fall in love with people under circumstances,” says Fisher. “We tend to fall in love with people from similar backgrounds, socioeconomic classes, those who have the same values, aspirations, looks, and even reproductive goals.”
Of course, as Fisher explains, you can walk into a room and everyone in there can meet that general criterion and you won’t fall in love with any of them, at first sight, or otherwise. That’s because, at the end of the day, it’s the personality of the person, in addition to what you have in common, that clicks. From there, your brain takes over.
During Fisher’s research using the brain scanner, when the participants were shown a photo of their lover, the ventral tegmental area of the brain lit up. This part of the brain “produces dopamine, a natural stimulant, and sends that dopamine to many other brain regions,” she says.
In turn, that dopamine does what dopamine does best: It rewards your brain with feel-good thoughts and feelings. The released dopamine is behind the motivation to be near your loved one, the craving and obsessive thinking about them when they’re not around, and, ultimately, that intense feeling that is associated with romantic love.
“What’s interesting about this little brain factory [the ventral tegmental area] is that it lies near the base of the brain, way below the cortex where you do your thinking… it lies next to the factory that orchestrates thirst and hunger,” says Fisher. Of course, thirst and hunger are basic drives that keep you alive, so the fact that romantic love resides in this same area of the brain suggests that romantic love, too, isn’t conscious, but rather a basic drive that compels you to “seek a partner, fall madly in love, and send your DNA into tomorrow,” she says.
So although love is commonly thought of as this fluffy, sentimental thing, it’s actually a survival mechanism, says Fisher. “It’s a drive; not an emotion. There are a lot of emotions that go along with this drive — jealousy, guilt, anxiety, memories, thoughts — but it’s a basic mating drive that evolved millions of years ago to allow you to focus your mating energy on one person [to pass on DNA].”
If you’ve ever been in love, you likely know all too well the butterflies, the dry mouth, the pounding of the heart, even the excitement that borders on nervousness. While dopamine is triggering motivation, craving, and the energy to stay up all night and talk to this person you’re in love with well into the wee hours of the morning, norepinephrine — the main neurotransmitter associated with the sympathetic nervous system, aka your fight-or-flight response — is responsible for all those other bodily sensations, she says. Norepinephrine triggers increases in heart rate, blood pressure, and blood sugar levels (to provide more energy to the body), and also wakes you up, and increases attention, focus, and memory storage, according to the Endocrine Society. Not to mention, bursts of norepinephrine can lead to euphoric feelings as well as hyperactivity. So, no, you’re not imagining it, your heart (really, your whole self) is all aflutter thanks to your brain.
How Long Does It Take to Fall In Love?
You’ve no doubt heard of love at first sight, but also of people who know each other for a lifetime before finally getting romantically involved — so it’s natural to wonder: How long does it take to fall in love?
The simple answer: It depends. Love can happen instantly, says Fisher. She’s been the chief science advisor for Match.com for 16 years and has conducted many studies for the site — and found that 50 percent of people believe in love at first sight. In fact, the 2017 Match Singles in America survey found that 34 percent of people claim to have experienced love at first sight themselves.
“It’s a basic brain system,” says Fisher. “You can be scared instantly, you can instantly feel anger or disgust, you can instantly feel joy, and you can instantly fall in love — attachment can take some time, but the brain circuitry [meaning, that dopamine, norepinephrine, and mating instinct] for romantic love can be triggered instantly.”
But, for others, love can grow. People who are emotionally and mentally ready for love (even if they’re not cognizant of it), are a bit more likely to fall in love than those who have closed themselves off to the idea of it, she says. Being ready to take the risk to fall in love certainly comes into play, and that risk has different worth for everyone. (After all, where there’s love, there’s the possibility of heartbreak.)
Looking for a ballpark average for how long it takes to fall in love? A 2011 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology surveyed undergraduate students and found that men think about confessing love 97 days into a new relationship (a little more than three months), whereas women do so about 149 days in (at nearly five months). That said, thinking about saying “I love you” to someone is very different than feeling it, especially considering there are all sorts of social factors that influence whether any given expression of love is deemed acceptable or unacceptable. (Think: “Don’t send it in a text,” or “don’t say it too early,” or “don’t be the one to say it first,” etc.)
So, if there’s no single answer for how long it takes to fall in love, can you do anything to change that timeline? Indeed, there are ways to speed up the process of falling in love — or at least try to — if that’s your aim.
“Because romantic love is driven by dopamine in the brain, if you want to trigger it, you need to be novel,” says Fisher. “Doing novel things together will drive up the dopamine and can push you over the threshold into falling in love.”
Fisher suggests going on trips, trying new things together, and basically moving outside that traditional way of dating. These new adventures will evoke excitement and pleasure, therefore rewarding the brain with dopamine. As your brain gets more and more hooked on dopamine, you get more and more hooked on the person with whom you’re spending time. There’s a reason why being in love is compared to being high on cocaine: The same brain chemicals and much of the same brain circuitry are activated during both, according to Fisher.
Having sex also kicks dopamine into high gear. “Stimulation of the genitals drives up the dopamine system in the brain to falling in love… orgasm can lead to deep attachment,” she says. (FTR, cuddling gives you a dopamine hit, too.) You can also thank oxytocin, also known as the love or bonding hormone, which is released during sexual activity for that attachment component as well.
This all makes it sound like it’s relatively easy to find someone who’s biologically and evolutionarily sound as a mate, and — boom — fall in love. But if you’ve ever been through a marathon of meh dates or dead-end relationships, you know it’s not all that easy to find those magic sparks.
It’s also about finding someone who fits into your “love map,” as Fisher calls it. As you grow up, experience life, and date different people, you get a sense of what you’re looking for and what you’re not looking for — many people even have a mental list of those aspects they want or don’t want in a partner. If you find someone who fits your love map — even if it’s out of the blue and you weren’t even looking — then this can be another opportunity to perhaps fall in love faster than if you tried to fall in love with someone who doesn’t fit squarely within your love map. Or, it could still take time as you get to know them slowly.
“When it comes to love, the brain system can be activated within seconds, months, years,” says Fisher. “It’s like a sleeping cat; it can be awakened anytime.”
That’s why, for example, it’s possible to be friends with someone for years and then suddenly develop a romantic attraction to them. Beyond that, it’s unclear exactly why or how this love response can be triggered later into a relationship, says Fisher — so don’t exactly bank on the idea that your FWB or platonic friend you’ve been in love with for years is going to suddenly fall in love with you.
What Does It Mean to Really Be In Love, Anyway?
If you’ve read any of Fisher’s work or watched her TED Talks (highly rec, BTW), you’ll find that she’s called love “life’s greatest prize,” and it’s true. Even those who have suffered greatly at the hands of love will still go running back toward the opportunity to love again if they find someone who triggers their brain, tickles their fancy, or makes their stomach feel like a butterfly pavilion.
But because everyone loves differently and love means different things to different people, there’s no one way to define what it means to be in love — just like there’s no set timeline of how long it takes to fall in love or magic formula to tell you with whom you’ll fall in love.
“Love will vary from one person to another, as well as one culture to another,” says Fisher. “It could mean, for some, that they feel safe, that they have a responsibility, that they’re financially secure, or they fit into a certain group now.”
However, Fisher does point out that there are a few fundamental traits when it comes to romantic love. For example, the person you’re in love with takes on a special meaning, and everything about them is special. From the car they drive, the place they live, the music they listen to, and so on down the list, all these things about them are special, and you focus on this person, this love of yours, more than anything else.
“In the brain scanner, when those in relationships were asked about what they didn’t like about their sweetheart, they could list those things, but they swept that aside and focused solely on what they did like about them,” says Fisher. “It’s positive illusions; the ability to overlook the negative and focus only on the positive.”
When you’re in love, the addiction centres in the brain become active. Sexual desire increases because dopamine drives up levels of testosterone, a hormone that plays an important role in libido. There can also be jealousy, also known as “mate guarding.” There’s a craving for emotional union, obsessive thinking of the person, and intense motivation to get this person to be with you as much as possible. “Love is like a fever,” says Fisher. “And it’s all involuntary… because of that very powerful brain system.”
As Fisher has said in her TED Talks and to me when I shared my own brief history of love with her: “No one gets out of love alive.” When you’re in love, you feel euphoric, on top of the world, and like you hit the jackpot. The brain system that’s at work giving you these feelings is extraordinarily important — not only for the survival of the species (at least from an evolutionary standpoint), but also because it’s a profoundly beautiful part of the human experience. To quote Dr. Helen Fisher herself, “a world without love is a deadly place.” I couldn’t agree more.
This story first appeared on www.shape.com
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