Identity

Love Is a Hoax

In honor of Valentine's Day, we're spending the week debunking myths and lies about romance.

by Lindsay Schrupp
Feb 13 2017, 8:00am

Illustration by Lia Kantrowitz

Read the rest of our "Love is a Hoax" coverage here.

In Robert Burton's lifework, "The Anatomy of Melancholy," the 17th century author details the many forms of melancholy and our futile attempts to cure it. Within his collection of life's human ailments and existential tonics, he details love's many symptoms: "But the symptoms of the mind of lovers are almost infinite, and so diverse that no art can comprehend them; though they be merry sometimes, and rapt beyond themselves for joy, yet most part, love is a plague, a torture, an hell, a bitter-sweet passion at last..."

Love, both an agent of melancholy and its long-practiced treatment, is still studied as such a sickness; some psychologists look at love as a temporary insanity, largely driven by a complex cocktail of hormones, neurobiological processes, and social conditioning.

Dr. Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist, researches romantic love and its impact on the brain. According to her work, the neurobiological effects of being in love are not dissimilar to the experience of being on cocaine. "It can be hard to sleep, it can be hard to eat. You're very focused, you're very motivated," she previously told Broadly. Fisher conducted brain-imaging studies on hundreds of people in various stages of romantic entanglement and found that both love and cocaine activate a dopamine production system in the brain's ventral tegmental area (VTA), which is strongly tied to addiction. "With cocaine, it wears off after a few hours," Fisher said. "With love, it can last weeks, months, years."

While the addiction-like symptoms can subside after the first flush of love, the brains of committed couples show increased activity in the the region of the brain rich with oxytocin and vasopressin receptors. According to Fisher, these chemicals are responsible for feelings of attachment and long-term commitment—something that isn't even unique to humans.

Research has also found that love can cause reduced cognitive control; people in the throes of love are less able to focus and perform tasks that require attention. "This temporary state of delusion has a vital human function," according to The Independent. "If we immediately saw all our partner's faults, we would be less likely to form a stable relationship in which to produce children."

Regardless of its many symptoms—and despite the copious amounts of scientific literature that suggest our deepest, most intimate feelings are controlled by a combination of chemicals and genes—many of us still find ourselves at the mercy of love's totality, trapped in a psychosis that can transcend both time and space. Or, as Emily Dickinson once wrote, "Love – is anterior to Life – / Posterior – to Death – / Initial of Creation, and / The Exponent of Earth –"

It's our hope that by interrogating both the discourse and the science of love, we may offer palliative, if not curative, treatments for the lovesick and the lonely alike. So, this week on Broadly, we'll dissect the concept of love like we would a cadaver, examining the body of research and literature surrounding the altered human state of being in love, and asking fundamental questions—Can dogs fall in love? Do men fall in love faster than women? What does abstinence do to your brain?—to develop a deeper understanding of the social and psychological consequences of romance, relationships, and the unfeigned yearnings of the human spirit.