• Part of an essay in progress

Is passionate love an emotion or a drive?

Posted November 4, 2013 10:36 am  

Helen Fisher, in her 2004 book, Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love, argues that it is the latter. Fisher is an anthropologist who has researched the evolutionary biology behind love (both human and animal) and makes a strong case that passionate, romantic love is an altered state, with associated brain chemistry changes and a specific evolutionary goal.

According to her, passionate love seems to be a universal human “brain system” and exists world-wide and through history.

It is one of the three brain systems that have evolved in human beings to insure the perpetuation of the species: lust, romantic love, and deep attachment. The first drive is designed to stimulate the wish to procreate, the second to focus the drive on a particular partner, and the third to ensure the couple will stay together long enough to promote the survival of a child. Fisher sees romantic love as more powerful even than the sex drive, but it is an essential drive not an emotion.

The physical sensations of being in love seem all to be universal: feeling swept away, the brain racing, “butterflies in the stomach,” surges of energy, euphoria, acute awareness, a sense of heightened prowess, sexual desire. Interestingly, these symptoms sound like those described on Wikipedia for a cocaine high: increased “alertness, feelings of well-being and euphoria, energy and motor activity, feelings of competence and sexuality.” Fisher looked for brain chemicals associated with these symptoms and evolved a hypothesis that heightened levels of dopamine and norepinephrine and decreased levels of serotonin play “a role in human romantic passion.”

In support of the evolutionary underpinnings of romantic love, Fisher argues that animals display many of the human components of falling in love: “heightened energy, focussed attention, euphoria, craving, persistence, possessiveness, and affection…” Furthermore, the brain chemistry seems to be the same.

Most intriguing is Fisher’s observation on the short-term nature of romantic passion and her hypothesis for its limited duration: “romantic love did not evolve to help us maintain a stable, enduring partnership. It evolved…to drive ancestral men and women to prefer, choose, and pursue specific partners, then start the mating process and remain sexually faithful to “him” or “her”  long enough to conceive a child.  After the child is born, however, parents need a new set of chemicals and brain networks to rear their infant as a team–the chemistry of attachment. As a result, feelings of attachment often dampen the ecstasy of romance, replacing it with a deep sense of union with a mate.”

Check out Helen Fisher’s TED talk.


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  • Robert Woods   April 5, 2016 at 6:22 pm

    I think love evolves through six stages: Attraction, Connection, Acceptance, Commitment, Intimacy, &
    Coalescence of meaning and purpose from the “fires of intimacy”. If we don’t fully experience the benefits
    of each stage, we end up with somthing
    short of Real Love.

  • eliz   March 11, 2014 at 8:44 am

    An interesting comment that came to me through email:
    1. I read the Helen Fisher link. I have a real problem with this kind of “scientism” and teleological thinking – hypothesizing beyond the observational data and ascribing evolutionary function to the observations.
    2. Whether to call love an emotion or a drive is really a matter of definition. By the same token, is love a drive or an instinct? What is the difference and does it matter?

    • eliz   March 11, 2014 at 8:51 am

      I agree totally about Helen Fisher: she is certainly science-lite, and her methods seem highly sketchy. But I am nevertheless persuaded by her argument that passionate love is a universal, biological drive. For me, it does matter whether we see love as an emotion or a drive. Fisher’s construct helps me to understand the crazed mindset of the smitten as something to be regarded with at least some suspicion. Our culture, in its more poetic view, tends to see “true love”–as defined by the intensity of the feelings–as something so pure and elevated as worthy of defense at all costs. Did you see yesterday’s NYTimes’ front page article (3/9/14) on the star-crossed, Afghan couple? If their passion for one another derives, in fact, from a biological drive charged up by the push-back against a repressive society, it doesn’t mean they shouldn’t fight for their right to be together, but it may also mean they shouldn’t assume an idyllic future happiness as a couple. Passionate love may be an essential to long-term happiness but may not be the only essential. I am reminded of a couplet in a book of light verse I had as a child: “When Cinderella wed the Prince, she thought him all her fancy painted, but that’s because they were not very well acquainted.” I see Fisher’s perspective as a corrective to an over-romanticized view of one aspect of human nature.

  • cassandra gordon   February 3, 2014 at 8:36 pm

    I find Dr. Fisher’s research spot-on.

    • eliz   February 3, 2014 at 9:20 pm

      Did any of it surprise you, or did it just strike you as something you knew intuitively? When I first read it, I thought, “But of course!”

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