How do I love thee?

With Valentine’s Day around the corner, Postscript looks into the roots of love, desire and attraction

Scientists attempt to explain love in more concrete neurological terms, moving away from older, poetic concepts like that of love at first sight.
Scientists attempt to explain love in more concrete neurological terms, moving away from older, poetic concepts like that of love at first sight.

Valentine’s Day, the annual holiday of love, is the traditional date when lovers express their feelings for one another through the exchange of flowers, cards and other Hallmark staples.

Love is complex, cross-cultural and undeniably one of the most powerful forces in the world. Anthropologist Helen Fisher has made a career out of studying the dynamics of love.

“People pine for love, people live to love, people kill for love and people die for love,” she said at a TED conference in February of 2006.

“Anthropologists have found concepts of love in 157 societies and did not find one where the concept of love did not exist,” she added in an e-mail to the Journal.

No concept has ever captured the minds of artists and academics in such a way as the infamous l-word. Artists have devoted ballads, writers like William Shakespeare have spilled their tormented hearts and scientists, sociologists and psychologists have all tried to grasp why people love, how they love and the reasons for who they love.


Dr. Helen Fisher has conducted extensive research and written five books on the evolution and future of human sex, love and marriage, analyzing how people’s personalities shape who they are and who they love. Fisher proposed three stages of love: lust, attraction and attachment. The initial stage of lust is driven by sex and hormones.

This initial stage leads to attraction, in which one becomes “love-struck” and can think about almost nothing else. Scientists believe three main neurotransmitters are involved in this stage: adrenaline, dopamine and serotonin. Adrenaline is to blame for the sweating, racing heart and dry mouth that often comes when unexpectedly bumping into the person of interest.

In an experiment on romantic love, Fisher asked several newly love-struck couples to have their brains examined through an MRI scan. She discovered these couples had high levels of dopamine—the chemical that stimulates desire and reward by triggering an intense rush of desire, very similar to the effect cocaine has on the brain.

“Romantic love is in so many ways an addiction, at its worst and at its best,” Fisher said.

The third chemical in the attraction stage is serotonin, which is responsible for the obsessive and repeated thoughts of a loved one. The drop of serotonin levels that occurs during this supposed attraction phase bare a striking resemblance to those eminent in patients with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

The final stage of attachment is what Fisher believes to be the bond that keeps couples together long enough for them to have and raise children; identifying one incredibly strong hormone known as oxytocin or what she calls the “cuddle hormone,” which is released during sex and produces a sense of intimacy.

Eye gazing

An experiment conducted by Arthur Aron, professor in the department of psychology at Stoney Brook University in New York, suggests that the simple act of staring into each other’s eyes has a tremendous effect on how people fall in love. Aron conducted an experiment in which he paired off complete strangers, asked them to share intimate details about themselves with one another for 30 minutes and gaze into each other’s eyes for four consecutive minutes. Following these three steps, Aron found many of these couples felt deeply attracted to one another. Six months later, two of his subjects were married.


Following in Sigmund Freud’s footsteps, many researchers have speculated people tend to be attracted to members of the opposite sex who remind them of their parents. Some of the other studies suggest that people gravitate towards those who remind them of themselves. Cognitive psychologist David Perett at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland conducted an experiment in which he morphed a digitalized photo of his subjects’ faces into the face of the opposite sex. The subjects were then shown a series of photos of the opposite sex and asked to choose the one they found most appealing. Almost all the subjects preferred the morphed version of their own face, which they didn’t even recognize to be their own.


In the animal world, pheromones describe individual scent prints, which influence the sexual behaviour and attract the attention of the opposite sex. Animals are believed to have a species-specific organ in their noses called the vomeronasal organ, which dictates this odorless chemical. Although some debate the effects of human pheromones, it does provide a strange explanation for why people feel gravitated to certain individuals.

Body language

Some psychologists have suggested it takes between 90 seconds and four minutes to decide whether or not one is attracted to someone. In many studies on the subject, the results conclude only seven per cent of attraction is actually linked to what is explicitly said. The rest consisted of 55 per cent of attraction through body language and 38 per cent through the tone and speed of their voice.

Social capital

Much research has been done to suggest that love is naturalistic, but many social theories suggest love is a social construct. One such theory is social capital, in which individuals tend to fall in love with those of equal market-value to themselves—whether this be academic, financial or appearance-oriented.

Tara Macdonald, Psychology professor, said love isn’t an easy concept to define using a single theory.

“Love is something very difficult to analyze, segment and define,” she said. “However, the sentimentality and intimate relationships is something identified by numerous psychologists to be part of [the experience of] being human. It is the need to care and be cared for that is present in almost all people at all time.”

Macdonald said she doesn’t believe that one theory of love trumps the other.

“There are so many theories, all certainly possessing a level of accuracy—from John Bolwby’s attachment theory, which follows Freudian patterns of deriving attachment needs from the relationship to one’s mother, to Steinberg’s triangular theory of love, the nature of love has not changed,” she said. “Rather, over the past 20 years we have begun to analyze the individual differences and similarities that influence how people form and maintain intimate relationships.”

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