Love advice spreads across the internet Gangnam-style, especially this time of year. But much of the advice on love – and breakups, for that matter – is little more than urban legend. Here are 7 surprising facts about the actual science of love and heartbreak.
You Actually Can Make Somebody Fall in Love With You
Dr. Arthur Aron made two strangers fall in love in a lab by staring into each other’s eyes for several minutes and taking turns answering 36 personal questions. (Things like, “What do you find most attractive in a woman/man?” and “If you were to die this evening, what would you most regret not having told someone?”) That experiment was replicated by two friends — now lovers — whose story was recently published in the New York Times. Why it works? The test creates intimacy, which can increase dopamine, one of the chemicals that floods the brain when you are in love.
You may be able to fool the brain with adrenaline, too. Adrenaline comes along with low levels of the feel-secure-and-safe chemical serotonin — just the right cocktail to fool the brain into producing feelings of love. In one famous study, a woman asked eligible strangers survey questions on a dangerous bridge and also safely on solid ground. Afterwards, she gave each of them her number. Who were more likely to call her later? The men on the bridge. Perhaps they had confused the adrenaline caused by the danger with the adrenaline caused by new love.
True Love Isn’t ‘Unconditional’
Newlyweds vow that they will love each other forever; that their love will never change. But they are deluded. Sexual desire and romantic love always fade. Scientists used to believe it would fade around the seven year mark. You know, that day you wake up next to your partner and suddenly feel like you’re in bed with a relative. But newer research shows that romantic love may fade even faster, even at just three years, according to recent research by the Pew Research Center and the National Survey of Families and Households. That doesn’t mean your relationship is doomed, of course. Just different. What keeps people together? Attachment. And altruism: a desire to keep our partner happy.
Marriage Isn’t Going to Solve Your Problems
In folklore, getting married is associated with happiness: an elegant white princess dress, a striking tuxedo, a wedding cake with marzipan flowers and the devoted man or woman you are going to spend the rest of your life with. A marriage may indeed signal happiness— a 2006 study in the Journal of Socio-Economics, which followed married couples over 17 years, found that happy people are more likely to get married than unhappy folks. But the marriage was not the cause of that happiness, these were naturally happy people. In reality, marriages do not make people happy. So don’t think a proposal is going to fix your relationship problems.
Love Hurts. Like, Physically Hurts
You want to fall in love, you say? Be careful what you wish for. Lovers might assume a broken arm may hurt more than a broken heart, but they’d be wrong. Emotional pain can feel just like physical pain by firing the very same neurons in the brain. Your heart can actually hurt.
Instead of Trying to Forget Your Ex, Try Remembering Him
If Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind weren’t fiction, I’d recommend erasing a few memories. But the path to recovery from a breakup may be just the opposite: don’t try to forget. Expose yourself to just about every reminder of your ex you can think of. Did he ride an Audi S5 Coupe? Go to an Audi store and test drive one. Keep going until the store manager asks you to get lost. The reason? Our brains get bored when we feed them the same information over and over. They adapt to the stimulants and eventually cease to take note – which enables to forget, and move on with our lives. This is true even if the information overload may be torturous at first.
Drastic Changes After a Breakup Can Help You Heal
It’s called “placement conditioning”: the idea that changing your surroundings may help you recuperate from heartbreak. The reason we know it works is because it’s been tested — in drug addicts. These weren’t heartbroken drug users, no, but love can be a lot like a drug: the reward chemical dopamine that plays a crucial role in drug addiction is overflowing in the brains of people smitten with love.
What explains the need for drastic changes is chemical conditioning. If a heroin addict always takes a dose at a specific time, in a specific hangout, the brain will learn that these stimuli (room, time, people) mean the dose is coming, and it will prepare itself for the fix. But suppose the heroin addict and his pals agree to quit. The withdrawal symptoms would be worse in the old environment because there the brain knows to prepare the body for a dose. When the fix doesn’t arrive, the cravings get stronger. When you are in emotional pain and crave your ex, you are in the same situation as the heroin addict who suddenly quits his addiction. His craving will be more intense in the “heroin” environment than in a new one. So get the ball rolling: move the love seat to the other side of the living room.
Go Out and Get Kinda Drunk After a Bad Breakup. No, Really
You may have heard the opposite, and even your shrink might warn against it — if she hasn’t caught up on the latest research. It takes time for the brain to store events to long-term memory. But there is an exception to this. When you experience something terrifyingly traumatic — which a breakup can be — the trauma leads to immediate memory storage. When you recall the negative memory it may continue to activate the amygdala, the brain’s fear processing center, on every recall. But there is a way to bypass this. If you get hammered right after the trauma, your memory of the event won’t be as tightly anchored in your brain. Excessive alcohol consumption naturally protects against this. So, go get drunk as a skunk. Just don’t don’t drink an unhealthy amount or do anything stupid.
Berit Brogaard is the author of the new book ON ROMANTIC LOVE: Simple Truths about a Complex Emotion (Oxford University Press). She is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Miami, where she specializes in philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, and the cognitive sciences.