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The Science of Love

How neuroscience, psychology and mathematics help us better understand why we’re so into this crazy little thing called love.

 By Victoria Yang

The heart dominates our conversations about love. When we get dumped, we say we’re “heartbroken”. When someone at work has the blues and it’s not even a Monday, we chalk it up to “issues of the heart”. Dreamy pop idols who have the most ardent of fans are referred to as “heartthrobs”. And, of course, the symbol of love is the heart.

Yet, that weird physical feeling emanating from the left side of your chest when your loved one does something particularly sweet for you has more to do with biological processes in the brain. Developing scientific research on love holds many new lessons for us, and can explain far more precisely why you feel the way you do when in love.

It’s chemistry, after all

You’ve seen them – new couples giggling at their own inside jokes, insisting that the other take the last bit of ice cream, tagging along wherever the other goes. When people fall in love, various parts of the brain release chemicals that produce these feelings of happiness and excitement and induce such behaviour.

In a now-famous experiment published in 2005, researchers placed 17 people who were in the first throes of romantic love in an MRI scanner and found that activity occurred in specific areas of the brain when the participants were gazing upon a photograph of their beloved.

These areas are rich in a chemical called dopamine, which is associated with feelings of pleasure, desire and excess energy. Dopamine is also hardwired in the reward circuitry of the brain, boosting motivation and goal-oriented behaviour. Thus, with dopamine, there’s nothing you wouldn’t do with or for your partner.

Dopamine isn’t the only ingredient in this neural love potion. Oxytocin steps in when you start a committed relationship. Widely known as the love hormone, oxytocin is plentiful in long-term couples, and is believed to have a role in sustaining these attachments.

The psychology of love

But the language of love isn’t limited to romantic love.

Feelings of companionship with your best buddy, the close relations you share with your parents, that moment of connection you have with a stranger at a party – these are examples of interactions to do with love, too, according to Professor Barbara Fredrickson, who specialises in psychology at the University of North Carolina in the US.

According to Prof Fredrickson, love is more about these micro-moments of connection, which come with a rush of positive emotions that help open us up and become more flexible, resilient and even creative.

Your natural biochemistry agrees. During these encounters with others, oxytocin kicks in, enabling you to pick up social cues that suggest the goodwill of your conversational partner and encourage you to trust and be more open with others.

So, love can indeed happen anywhere and with anyone. Merely getting out and socialising more can lead to a higher likelihood of these encounters, to the point of falling in romantic love.

Algorithms of attraction

These scientific explanations certainly expand how we understand love, but putting our knowledge to practice is a different ball game. Some people have drawn from science and, sometimes, pseudoscience to come up with their own theories about the science of attraction.

Today, there are even equations for compatibility, as seen in the search-and-match algorithms that online dating sites use. According to accredited dating site esync, a 70 per cent compatibility rate is what it takes for potential sparks to fly. This percentage is based on how people match up in the site’s unique algorithm, which considers 15 areas of compatibility, ranging from the common “Values and Beliefs” to open-ended categories such as “Life Experiences” and “Worldliness”.

Such algorithms take incompatible candidates off the table in a decidedly unpoetic way. But the programs also add potentially better ones, selectively expanding your dating pool in a process that’s specific to everyone. Dating can thus be seen as a numbers game – a perspective that esync’s co-founder Violet Lim holds.

According to her, the average person will probably be attracted to only five out of 10 people he or she meets. One might go on a first date with three or four people from those five suitors-in-waiting, and a second date with two or three suitors.

“The problem is, many people do not meet 10 new friends of the opposite gender in a month, or even a year,” says Ms Lim.

Love is out there

Nevertheless, these computational solutions to love may seem too deliberate for something we’ve come to see as serendipitous. After all, people of the past fell in love unaided by computers or scientific studies. Even dating sites such as esync see this, and arrange physical meet-ups only after users mutually express interest in the candidates suggested by the site.

“As much as we can match compatibility, we cannot match chemistry. We can know for sure only when two people meet in person. What we are doing here is to help our singles make better decisions,” Ms Lim maintains.

While there may be some element of affinity or luck in the search for love, we can take concrete steps to increase our chances of finding it. Even if we don’t have a PhD in mathematical statistics, we can increase our visibility, put ourselves out there and open our hearts to the possibilities.


This article was first published in DUET magazine.