I wish I had a sexy story to explain why I began to study romantic love. But my interest most likely stems from the fact that I am an identical twin. Long before I learned about the nature/nurture debate in college, I was busy examining how my sister and I were alike. This fascination then transformed into a life-long drive to understand human nature – all those traits we share as human beings. Among these predispositions is our penchant for romantic love. Indeed, I have come to believe that humanity has evolved three different brain systems for mating and reproduction: the sex drive, romantic love, and feelings of deep attachment. Sometimes these brain systems work in symphonic harmony to sweep us to the altar. Sometimes they work at cross purposes instead. You can lie in bed at night and swing from feelings of deep attachment for one person to feelings of intense romantic love for another. No wonder the ancient Greeks called romantic love the “madness of the gods.”
Songs, poems, plays, operas, ballets, books, movies, stories, myths, legends: everywhere people pine for love, live for love, kill for love, and die for love. Romantic passion is one of the most powerful brain systems humanity shares. And our films capture this obsession easily – probably because this madness is so natural. In fact, as actors move their facial muscles in specific ways, these poses trigger neural circuits in the brain to make them feel what they are trying to express. And as we watch, we unconsciously mimic their facial expressions and feel these emotions, too. This is why we can become so elated (or drained) as we exit a passionate or disturbing flick. The actors do not even have to be good looking. However, it is better when they are beautiful and handsome – for a scientific reason. I study the brain. I and my colleagues have put more than 50 men and women into a scanner (fMRI) to record what happens in the brain as you feel the rush of romantic passion. By chance, we also found that when you look at an attractive face, specific brain regions trigger pleasure.
But can movies and television shows actually teach us about romance? I think so. These are our modern campfires. We warm our hearts and hone our minds as we sit around them and watch our celebrities win and lose at love. Great movies have only one quality: they are believable. They hijack brain regions associated with deep feelings and make us genuinely weep, pine, or soar with joy. Women screenwriters may have a slight advantage in portraying this ecstasy and despair: women are, on average, more verbally adroit, as well as more skilled at reading postures, gestures, and tones of voice. But brain scanning studies have shown that men feel romantic love just as powerfully. So an articulate male screenwriter has the biological capacity to express this primordial feeling just as well.
But all their words cannot trump the acting – because some 90% of human communication is non-verbal. If I glared at you and snarled: “I love you.” You would not believe me. Words are only a small part of the message. With their vocal music, facial expressions, and body postures, actors transform these mouthy little words into wrenching passion, searing humor, or blazing fury. But if you want to experience the finest words and the finest acting on this Valentine’s Day, see Romeo and Juliet. It is ageless because it is real. It elegantly portrays love’s elation, anguish, craving, possessiveness, dedication, and unswerving focus in the all-perfect, all-powerful beloved. As Romeo expressed this: “Juliet is the sun.”
Helen Fisher is a biological anthropologist at Rutgers University.
Image credit: 20th Century Fox