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Science of love: Rutgers professor talks biological romance, online dating

 A person's physical appearance is the first impression they give, especially on online dating services such as Tinder. An issue though is that those who have high expectations may end up being disappointed when they meet matches in person.  – Photo by Garrett Steffe

Helen Fisher, a visiting research associate and chief scientific advisor for, broke down her findings regarding love, relationships and the chemical processes that cause these functions.

An expert on love, Fisher has conducted an annual study on more than 30,000 singles in the United States with for the past nine years. She said love is a bodily function, which is illustrated by her findings from putting subjects into functional magnetic resonance imaging machines (fMRI). 

“It’s a drive. In fact, when my colleagues and I put people into the brain scanner and found basic brain circuitry for romantic love, we found activity in a tiny factory in the base of the brain called the ventral tegmental area that pumps out dopamine,” Fisher said. “It lies near brain regions that regulate thirst and hunger.” 

There is an important correlation in these functions, which is why the region in the brain that is involved with love is so close to them. Fisher said thirst and hunger keeps a person alive in the present, while romantic love enables a person to focus on another individual and form a bond to continue their DNA in the future. In this way, romantic love is a survival mechanism.

Fisher divided love into three distinct systems for mating and reproduction: sex drive, feelings of romantic love and feelings of intense attachment. She said romantic love is a constantly-held trait throughout the world. 

“When you fall in love, the person takes on special meaning. Everything about them becomes special: the car they drive, the house they live in and the music they like. And then you feel intense energy,” she said. “You could walk all night and talk until dawn, (experience) mood swings of intense elation or despair, bodily reactions like butterflies in your stomach, intense feelings of possessiveness and an increased sex drive. Everything about them becomes sexual.”

Although Fisher sees a strong biological connection between romantic love and the brain, she believes that culture also plays a role in how love is expressed. She compared the feeling of love to the emotion of fear.

“People all over the world fear. On the grasslands of ancient Africa, people were scared of getting eaten by a lion. Today, people fear being hit by a taxi cab or failing an exam. These are basic brain systems, and in different cultures they are going to operate differently,” Fisher said.

Physical appearance is like a prescreening toward love, she said. A person’s looks are the first thing that other people evaluate, whether they are seen in a bar, subway, church or even on Tinder.

The issue with online dating services in the modern age, though, is that people stay on the sites for too long, Fisher said. The longer someone stays on a dating application, the less likely they will be to ever meet a potential partner in person. And if they do meet, they are more likely to be disappointed. 

“If you stay on a dating site for too long, you get your hopes up and your imagination is going on about who this person is. Very often, the first real breaking point is when you actually meet them, because they don’t meet what your expectations are,” she said.

An alternative to this problem is to redefine dating sites as “introducing sites.” Fisher said when single people meet a potential partner in person, they act and judge the mate in natural ways that evolved long before the digital age. Thus, the internet could be used as another way to flirt, court and bond. 

An aspect she observed in young people — particularly millennials — is the tendency for them to jump into physical relationships before completely committing to each other. Fisher said this is actually a good thing, because they are setting positive patterns for the future. 

As opposed to the traditional view that having sex before starting a relationship is reckless, the younger generation is exercising caution in choosing a partner, she said.

“(Millennials are) terrified of locking themselves into something that they can’t get out of … they want to go career-first and get some money in the bank before they settle down,” she said.

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