The Biological Basis of Attraction

As I mentioned in my previous blog post that I would be uploading and sharing the various works I submitted for school. Primarily, the rationale is – why let good pieces of work rot in the hard disk where no one will even look at them again? In economic terms, the marginal cost of producing ideas by sharing them is zero. Yet there exists concrete gain.

I wrote an opinion piece on ‘The Biological Basis of Attraction’ some time back together with a few friends in my psychology class (Nadia, Shi Ya and Trang). I hope this will be interesting.


DO you think about a special someone all day long? Does that special someone seem so perfect and flawless? You just want to spend all day long with him/her. You are in love. Admit it.

But what makes us love? What do you know about love? Is love sacred and did anything cause us to fall in love? If there isn’t, what forces are there that make us more likely to fall for that special someone?

In this opinion piece, we are going introduce to you the little “cupids” in our bodies that drive us to love that special someone, based on a study conducted by biological anthropologist, Helen Fisher.

Just to be clear: lust, attraction and commitment are very different. Lust is purely sexual and can exist without attraction or commitment. Attraction is characterized by increased energy, possessiveness and a motivation to win a preferred partner (Fisher, The Drive to Love, 2006). We are going to focus on attraction – more specifically, romantic attraction.


To find out what biological processes cause us to feel the way we do when we are in love, Fisher conducted a functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) study and found that when one sees a photo of their beloved, there was a distinct increase in dopamine (feel-good neurotransmitter) activity in specific parts of the brain – the dopaminergic reward system (Aron, et al., 2005) (Schultz, 2000). This reward system is associated with pleasure and arousal, it motivates us and focuses our attention to pursue and attain rewards (Schultz, 2000) (Delgado, Nystrom, Fissell, Noll, & Fiez, 2000) – in this case, the love of our lives.


Recall the first time you met your beloved. You enjoyed his or her company and the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine is produced and released in the ventral tegmental area of your brain (Schultz, 2000). This is where it all started. Dopamine sends messages saying ‘I want that’, ‘more of that’ and ‘give it to me!’, enticing you to want more and more of that good company, your beloved.


Dopamine then reaches the caudate nucleus, where the euphoria and ecstasy you experience is integrated with the sights and sounds of your beloved (Brown & Fisher, n.d.). Your brain now knows who your beloved is.


English singer-songwriter Robert Palmer famously sang ‘Addicted to Love’. It turns out that this is true. The nucleus accumbens, which is associated with addiction (Chiara, et al., 2004), is also activated in love (Aron, et al., 2005). The feelings, sights and sounds of your beloved is now associated with addiction. Indeed, as the song goes, you “might as well face it, you’re addicted to love”.


Dopamine, dopamine, dopamine… Are we therefore completely unable to control who we love? Not true. The evolutionarily newest prefrontal cortex, where higher-order cognition takes place, allows you to conduct the final review about the choice of your beloved: “Does his or her values matches mine?” “Will he or she be a good father/mother?”. Essentially, the prefrontal cortex helps you answer the question “Is he or she really the one for me?” (Fisher, Brains Do It: Lust, Attraction, and Attachment, 2000).


Now that we know what happens when we fall in love, what happens when we fall out of love? Not many romantic relationships last. In these cases, where did love go?

A recent study found that the honeymoon period in newlyweds last for about 30 months before fading fore fading (Lorber, Erlanger, Heyman, & O’leary, 2015). During the honeymoon period, couples have higher levels of nerve growth factor (NGF), a protein that is associated with romantic feelings (Emanuele, NGF and romantic love., 2011) (Emanuele, et al., 2006). NGF fades over time, possibly explaining why the honeymoon period ends after some time (Emanuele, et al., 2006). Does this mean the both of you no longer love each other? Not true! This is a natural transition to the ‘attachment’ phase of love – characterized by calm, comfort and emotional union with a long-term partner (Fisher, The Drive to Love, 2006), which is characterized by different neurotransmitters in our brain – oxytocin and vasopressin (Lim, Murphy, & Young, 2004) (Lim & Young, 2004).

To sum it up, falling in love is wonderful and miraculous, our body is biologically wired to crave for love and it facilitates this process via the dopaminergic reward system. Love naturally grows and transits from one phase to other. Remember – love is a choice – so long as you decide (with the help of the prefrontal cortex) to love, you can always find ways to relive the euphoria and ecstasy associated with increases in dopamine levels (hint: try new activities together (Marcus, 2012)).


Aron, A., Fisher, H., Mashek, D. J., Strong, G., Li, H., & Brown, L. L. (2005). Reward, Motivation, and Emotion Systems Associated With Early-Stage Intense Romantic Love. Journal of Neurophysiology, 327-337.

Brown, L. L., & Fisher, H. (n.d.). Ventral Tegmental Area and Caudate Nucleus. Retrieved from The Anatomy of Love:

Chiara, G. D., V, B., S, F., MA, D. L., L, S., C, C., . . . D, L. (2004). Dopamine and drug addiction: the nucleus accumbens shell connection. Neuropharmacology, 227-241.

Delgado, M. R., Nystrom, L. E., Fissell, C., Noll, C., & Fiez, J. A. (2000). Tracking the Hemodynamic Responses to Reward and Punishment in the Striatum. Journal of Neurophysiology, 3072-3077.

Emanuele, E. (2011). NGF and romantic love. Archives Italiennes de Biologie, 265-268.

Emanuele, E., Polit, P., Bianchi, M., Minoretti, P., Bertona, M., & Geroldi, D. (2006). Raised plasma nerve growth factor levels associated with early-stage romantic love. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 288-294.

Fisher, H. (2000, January 1). Brains Do It: Lust, Attraction, and Attachment. Retrieved from The Dana Foundation:

Fisher, H. (2006). The Drive to Love. In R. J. Sternberg, & K. Weis, The New Psychology of Love (pp. 87-107). Yale University Press.

Lim, M., & Young, L. (2004). Vasopressin-dependent neural circuits underlying pair bond formation in the monogamous prairie vole. Neuroscience, 35-45.

Lim, M., Murphy, A., & Young, A. (2004). ntral striatopallidal oxytocin and vasopressin V1a receptors in the monogamous prairie vole (Microtus ochrogaster). The Journal of Comparative Neurology, 555-570.

Lorber, M., Erlanger, A., Heyman, R., & O’leary, K. (2015). The honeymoon effect: does it exist and can it be predicted? Prevention Science, 550-559.

Marcus, G. (2012, May 10). Learn Something New – Your Brain Will Thank You. Retrieved from CNN:

Schultz, W. (2000). MULTIPLE REWARD SIGNALS IN THE BRAIN. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 199-207.


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