Love: What Is It & Why Do We Need It?

Anthropologist, Helen Fisher, is a research professor and member of the Center for human evolutionary studies in the Department of anthropology at Rutgers University. Her research is focused on the evolution and future of human sex, love and marriage and gender differences in the brain and behavior. She says that her research have led her to conclude that romantic love is not simply about emotions, rather it is more like a hunger that needs to be satisfied.

In her book, Why we love, Fisher examines the reason humans experience sleeplessness, mood swings and of session when they fall in love. These experiences appear to be equally present across time, geography and gender. Fisher’s research involved scanning the brains of people that included 17 people who had just fallen madly in love, 15 who had just been dumped and 17 who reported that they were still in love after an average of 21 years of marriage. 

Fisher proposes that humans developed systems for meeting and reproduction that included:

  • lust. The sex drive or libido
  • attraction. The intense early-stage, romantic love
  • attachment. Deeper feelings of union with the longer-term partner

Fisher also proposes that love can be triggered by any of these three feelings. For example, some people have sex with someone new and then fall in love while others will fall in love first then have sex. Some people might feel a deep attachment to each other and this may become the stepping stone that leads to sex. However, the sex drive evolved to encourage mating with a range of partners while romantic love evolved to enable a person to focus their mating energy on one partner at a time. Attachment evolved to enable humans to form a pair bond and raise children as a team.

Fisher suggests that romantic love is a stronger drive than sex drive. She says ” After all, if you casually ask someone to go to bed with you and they refuse, you don’t slip into a depression, commit suicide or homicide — but around the world, people suffer terribly from romantic rejection.”

Fisher’s brain scans also revealed differences between male and female brains. For example, there was more activity in the brain region associated with visual stimuli in men while the women showed more activity in the brain regions associated with memory recall. Fisher suggests that these differences arise from different evolutionary forces that were designed to help men and women choose the best partner. Fisher suggests that a male is obliged to assess the potential female partner visually in order to determine whether she is healthy and age-appropriate to bear and rear a child. However, females cannot know from a male’s appearance whether he would in fact to be a good husband and father and, therefore, needs to remember his past behavior, achievements, and misadventures in order to be able to choose the best partner.

The signs of everlasting love

Barbara Fredrickson is a researcher at the University of North Carolina and her research indicates that love may not be a long-lasting condition or a continuously present emotion that sustains a marriage. It also indicates that it is not the yearning and passion that characterizes your love.

Fredrickson says that it is in fact the “micro-moment of positivity resonance”. She is suggesting that love is a connection that is characterized by a flood of positive emotions that you share with another person (importantly, it could be any other person) that you may happen to be in contact with on any particular day. So, you can experience these micro-moments with a romantic partner but also with a child or a close friend. However, you can also fall in love with a stranger on the street, a colleague at work, or your customer service representative in a retail store.

One global poll showed that most married people, or those with a significant partner, think of their romantic partner is the greatest source of happiness in their lives. According to the same poll, almost half of all single people are looking for a romantic partner and say that finding that special person to love would contribute significantly to happiness.

However, Fredrickson suggests that this represents a “worldwide collapse of imagination.” She adds, “Thinking of love purely as a romance or commitment that you share with one special person—as it appears most on earth do—surely limits the health and happiness you derive” from love. 

Fredrickson asserts that love requires the physical presence of another and has three parts, biologically speaking—mirror neurons, oxytocin, and vagal tone. 

When you experience love your brain mirrors the person you are connecting within any unique way. Research conducted by Yuri Hasson at Princeton University involved recording a young woman telling a lively and long story about her high school prom. Then the researchers played the recording to the participants in the experiment and their brains were scanned at the same time. Then the researchers told each persistent to re-create the story so that the researchers could determine who was listening well and who wasn’t. The thinking was that good listeners would likely be the people that could engage in natural conversation with the storyteller. The findings of the research indicated that, in some cases, the brain patterns of the listener mirrored those of the storyteller after a short period of time. Some listeners needed time to process the story. In other cases the brain activity was almost perfectly synchronized – there was no time lag between the speaker and listener. In some rare cases, if the listener was particularly tuned in to the story, his brain activity actually anticipated the storytellers’ activity in some cortical areas.

The mutual understanding and shared emotions in that third category generated a micro-moment of love which Fredrickson refers to as “a single act, performed by two brains.”

The so-called cuddle hormone, oxytocin, facilitates these moments of shared intimacy and is part of the “calm and connect” system (as opposed to the fight or flight system that shuts us off from other people). The hormone is released in enormous quantities during sex and in small quantities during the moments involving intimate connection. It works by causing people to feel more trusting and open to connection. It is the hormone of attachment and bonding that spikes during micro-moments of love. Researchers have found that parents that act affectionately with their infants, micro-moments of love such as hugging or playing, cause oxytocin levels in both the parent and the child to rise in sync.

The third component is the vagus nerve and enables you to optimize your ability to detect process and experience love. It connects your brain to your heart. Fredrickson says that “your vagus nerve stimulates tiny facial muscles that better enable you to make eye contact and synchronize your facial expressions with another person. It even adjusts the minuscule muscles of your middle ear so you can better track her voice against any background noise.” 

The vagus nerve’s potential for love can be measured by examining heart rate and breathing rate, also known as “vagal tone”. A high vagal tone is good. These people have greater control over their emotions, behavior, and attention. They are more socially adept and more capable of establishing and nurturing connections with other people. More importantly, they appear to be more loving. Fredrickson’s research found that people that have a high vagal tone have reported more experiences of love during their days than those with a lower vagal tone.

Vagal tone was once considered to be something that was stable from person to person, meaning that your vagal tone was set and could be changed. However, Fredrickson’s research indicates that this is not correct. In 2010 Fredrickson conducted research that involved advocating one group of participants to a love condition and another group of participants to a control condition. The participants in the love condition were required to allocate approximately one hour per week for several months to the ancient Buddhist practice of “lovingkindness meditation”. This involved sitting in silence for a period of time and cultivating feelings related to love such as compassion for another person, warmth, tenderness, and from another person and repeating phrases to themselves where they would wish love, peace, strength, and general well-being upon the person they were thinking about. 

Fredrickson measured the vagal tone of the participants before and after the meditation period. The results indicated that people could in fact significantly increase their vagal tone by self-generating love through loving, kindness, and meditation. In fact, the results were so powerful that she was invited to present them before the Dalai Lama himself in 2010. The vagal tone mediates social connectedness and bonds so people whose vagal tone’s increased were capable of experiencing more micro-moments of love in their days. Beyond the micro-moments, the increased capacity for love is expected to foster additional health benefits because the high vagal tone is also associated with a lowered risk of inflammation, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and stroke.

One objective of Fredrickson’s project is to lower cultural expectations about love that are mostly misguided.

The divorce rate in the United States is approximately 50%. This does not mean that 50% of relationships fail. It means that 50% of the relationships resulted in divorce and therefore the number of failed relationships is much higher because this statistic does not account for the enormous number of people that are unhappily married. The indisputable conclusion to draw is that it is highly unlikely that the man or woman of your dreams exists. If love is important to you (and it should be) then you need to think a little differently to figure out how to “actually” get as much of it as possible. 

The reason for including a discussion of this research in this book is that it sheds light on the fact that many of us have notions of love that are not based on the human body’s actual physical and mental needs and well-being. In addition to the fact that the perfect person you are looking for likely doesn’t exist, there are numerous people with whom you can have loving relationships (including micro-moments during any given day with any person with whom you may be in contact) if you can just find it in you to let it happen. 

Therefore, if we need love and we know that it’s highly unlikely that we can find it in one person but it is likely that we can find it on any given day with any stranger, we should allow the micro-moments of love to fill our days, weeks and years and let them accumulate into a lifetime of love.


New research suggests that dogs do in fact feel love and affection with their owners. Researchers at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia found that a part of the brain associated with positive emotions was similar in both dogs and humans. The researchers managed to get brain scans of the dogs in order to attempt to understand what the dog was really thinking rather than just inferring it from their behavior.

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