Fewer couples are meeting through acquaintances, instead meeting online, a Stanford University study shows. The study concludes that family and friends have been displaced by the internet as the most popular way for couples to meet. After meeting someone, how does your brain fall in love?
In a process that Stanford researchers are calling “disintermediating,” new couples are eschewing the traditional methods of meeting each other through mutual friends, choosing instead to meet online. For the first time, meeting online has become the most popular way of beginning a romantic relationship among heterosexuals. Where things go from there is up to each partner, but the science behind the brain falling in love remains the same.
Measuring the Romantic Brain
Studies suggest that brain activity changes in a quantifiable manner when someone is in love. But how is it measured? “This has often been studied by recording nervous system activity while a person thinks about or looks at a photograph of someone for whom they feel romantic love,” said Dr. Peter M. Vishton, Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary. “The data is then contrasted with the nervous system activity while looking at other photos—for instance, of other very familiar people for whom the participants do not feel love. Note that this is important, since we know that familiarity matters a lot in terms of how the brain responds.”
According to Dr. Vishton, since the body always contains some water, which can conduct electricity, the body tends to push more water to the skin when someone is generally aroused by something. As anyone who’s been in love will testify, this eventually leads to sweating. “Long before that sweating starts, however, this greater water concentration results in lower electrical resistance,” he said. “When you look at a picture of someone you love, your skin conductance level rises within a few seconds—pretty consistently, actually.”
Love in an fMRI Machine
Aside from getting a little sweaty, what else happens? Dr. Vishton mentioned one interesting event that occurs in the central nervous system when your brain responds to the image or presence of someone you love. “The zygomatic muscles of the face become slightly tensed, with tension that we can measure in terms of electrical activity; when these particular muscles are fully tensed, they pull the sides of your mouth upward in a smile,” he said.
Dr. Vishton said that neuroscientist Helen Fisher and her team of researchers have performed many experiments on the romantic brain by putting patients in an fMRI machine and observing their reactions to people they love. “This research team found activation in a variety of regions, but most notably in an area referred to as the ventral tegmental area,” he said. “It shares a lot of connections with the nucleus accumbens, which is one of the areas associated with desire in general. When you introduce dopamine into the cells in the nucleus accumbens region, the experience is a rush of pleasure.”
To clarify, Dr. Vishton said that the nucleus accumbens is activated when you’re hungry and take a bite of food, or when you make progress towards achieving a goal, or take a dose of cocaine. “The ventral tegmental region seems to function in the same way for romantic attraction,” he said.
With spiked electrical activity, the sweats, muscle contractions, and chemical responses similar to eating and doing cocaine—it’s little wonder that love is often referred to as a drug.
Dr. Peter M. Vishton contributed to this article. Dr. Vishton is Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary. He earned his Ph.D. in Psychology and Cognitive Science from Cornell University. He also taught at Northwestern University and served as the program director for developmental and learning sciences at the National Science Foundation.