The science of love explained by Dr. Sue Hart

Dr. Sue Hart (a fitting last name for this topic!) is a professor of psychology at Lees-McRae and is currently teaching a course on intimate relationships. With Valentine’s Day right around the corner, we decided to go straight to Hart when we wanted to learn more what exactly happens when we have love on the brain and why we find particular people attractive.

Turns out, falling in love, or being in love, is so much more than just staying up late at night on the phone or keeping that Snapchat streak.


Ah, being in love! Does it mean you never have to say you are sorry? Does it really conquer all? Does it come at first sight, when you least expect it, or does it really make you blind? 

One thing for sure is that this has been a topic of interest for philosophers and scientists for centuries.

Even as complicated as it feels sometimes, social psychologists agree that falling in love involves several simple ideas:

Basic attraction begins with availability. We fall for people who we have access to, those who live close by, we see in class or at work every day, or even those we regularly correspond with online. The more interaction we have with someone, the more familiar they become. And the more familiar they are, the more we like them. So absence doesn’t make the heart grow fonder—mere exposure does! 

However, just hanging around someone does not necessarily mean you fall in love with them. 

But what if this person gives you some kind of “sign” that they like you? Let’s say they add a heart emoji after a text, give a long look across a room, or a quick smile or wink?

Psychologists call it reciprocity—the idea that we like people who we think like us. No one really wants to feel the pain of being rejected, so we tend to feel more positive emotions toward others who show an interest in us. If we feel certain that a person will not reject us, we are much more likely to invest in them emotionally. 

Another way we might figure out who we are attracted to is by simply looking in a mirror. The more similar a person is to us, the greater the chance we will find them attractive.

Statistically speaking, most people end up with partners who are close to their own age, of their own race, have similar education levels, similar religious beliefs, similar values and interests, and even comparable levels of physical beauty. 

So is attraction just our underlying narcissism? 

Not entirely, but we all find validation comforting. So for example, if I have invested thousands of dollars and years of my life to become educated, I will be more attracted to others who made that choice as well. Similarly, if I hold strong religious beliefs or enjoy hiking in the outdoors, I will want to be with someone who also believes those things and enjoys that activity because it validates for me that I’m right for thinking that way or wanting to partake in that activity. Not to mention these shared ideas and interests give us things to talk about and do together, so we are likely to spend more time with each other. 

But psychology may not be the only factor at play when you’re finding Mr. or Mrs. Right—your brain also plays a big part. 

Neuroscience has been able to pinpoint several areas of the brain that are most active when we are in love. These areas are the ones associated with our reward systems and pleasure-seeking behaviors. 

In one study, anthropologist Helen Fisher and her colleagues put college students inside an fMRI machine and studied the brain while the student looked at pictures of someone they loved. The researchers found the most active areas of the brain were those areas rich in the neurotransmitter dopamine.

Dopamine is the “feel-good” neurotransmitter that is responsible for the euphoric effects of drugs like cocaine and is important in the formation of addictions. So seeing or talking about that special someone floods our reward pathways in our brain with dopamine and activates our pituitary gland to release the hormone oxytocin. 

Research suggests that oxytocin plays a role in feelings of calmness and security and it may be important in forming an emotional connection with our partner, just as it did when we bonded with our mother as an infant.

Richard Schwartz of the Harvard Medical School suggests that the positive emotions of love also deactivates certain neural pathways, such as those associated with negative emotions like fear and social judgement.  

This connection, which helps us make critical judgements about people, is temporarily shut down enabling us to overlook those little flaws that may otherwise prevent us from finding someone attractive.

So even though we are not completely blinded by love, it is clear that Cupid’s arrow is certainly getting a little boost from our brain chemistry!

By Sue HartFebruary 12, 2020
CommunityCampus LifeAcademics