Scanning the brains of people in love is also helping to refine science's grasp of love's various forms. Helen Fisher, a researcher at Rutgers University, and the author of a new book on love, suggests it comes in three flavours: lust, romantic love and long-term attachment. There is some overlap but, in essence, these are separate phenomena, with their own emotional and motivational systems, and accompanying chemicals. These systems have evolved to enable, respectively, mating, pair-bonding and parenting.
Lust, of course, involves a craving for sex. Jim Pfaus, a psychologist at Concordia University, in Montreal, says the aftermath of lustful sex is similar to the state induced by taking opiates. A heady mix of chemical changes occurs, including increases in the levels of serotonin, oxytocin, vasopressin and endogenous opioids (the body's natural equivalent of heroin). “This may serve many functions, to relax the body, induce pleasure and satiety, and perhaps induce bonding to the very features that one has just experienced all this with”, says Dr Pfaus.
Then there is attraction, or the state of being in love (what is sometimes known as romantic or obsessive love). This is a refinement of mere lust that allows people to home in on a particular mate. This state is characterised by feelings of exhilaration, and intrusive, obsessive thoughts about the object of one's affection. Some researchers suggest this mental state might share neurochemical characteristics with the manic phase of manic depression. Dr Fisher's work, however, suggests that the actual behavioural patterns of those in love—such as attempting to evoke reciprocal responses in one's loved one—resemble obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).
That raises the question of whether it is possible to "treat" this romantic state clinically, as can be done with OCD. The parents of any love-besotted teenager might want to know the answer to that. Dr Fisher suggests it might, indeed, be possible to inhibit feelings of romantic love, but only at its early stages. OCD is characterised by low levels of a chemical called serotonin. Drugs such as Prozac work by keeping serotonin hanging around in the brain for longer than normal, so they might stave off romantic feelings. (This also means that people taking anti-depressants may be jeopardising their ability to fall in love.) But once romantic love begins in earnest, it is one of the strongest drives on Earth. Dr Fisher says it seems to be more powerful than hunger. A little serotonin would be unlikely to stifle it.
Wonderful though it is, romantic love is unstable—not a good basis for child-rearing. But the final stage of love, long-term attachment, allows parents to co-operate in raising children. This state, says Dr Fisher, is characterised by feelings of calm, security, social comfort and emotional union.
Because they are independent, these three systems can work simultaneously—with dangerous results. As Dr Fisher explains, "you can feel deep attachment for a long-term spouse, while you feel romantic love for someone else, while you feel the sex drive in situations unrelated to either partner." This independence means it is possible to love more than one person at a time, a situation that leads to jealousy, adultery and divorce—though also to the possibilities of promiscuity and polygamy, with the likelihood of extra children, and thus a bigger stake in the genetic future, that those behaviours bring. As Dr Fisher observes, “We were not built to be happy but to reproduce.”
The stages of love vary somewhat between the sexes. Lust, for example, is aroused more easily in men by visual stimuli than is the case for women. This is probably why visual pornography is more popular with men. And although both men and women express romantic love with the same intensity, and are attracted to partners who are dependable, kind, healthy, smart and educated, there are some notable differences in their choices. Men are more attracted to youth and beauty, while women are more attracted to money, education and position. When an older, ugly man is seen walking down the road arm-in-arm with a young and beautiful woman, most people assume the man is rich or powerful.