Harvard Mental Health Letter

In Brief: The evolution of romance

In Brief

The evolution of romance

Romantic love, passionate love, being in love — it's been exalted as an ideal state and derided as a delusion, the only socially acceptable form of psychosis. Anthropologists writing in a British scientific journal argue that it's neither, but a motivational system with a crucial survival function that produces a recognizable form of brain activity.

Much research suggests that romance is a human universal, found in all societies and cultures. Daring the charge of anthropomorphism, the authors of this study cite evidence that it's not even peculiar to our species but occurs in many mammals and birds. They mention a naturalist's observations of a smitten orangutan who lost his appetite and could barely tear his eyes from the object of his passion.

The authors speculate that romantic love, which they also call courtship attraction, is one of three related brain systems that provide for reproduction in many species, including Homo sapiens. The sex drive puts us on the lookout for mates. Pair bonding or attachment keeps a couple together to raise offspring. In between, romance or courtship attraction may help us to focus energy and save time by concentrating attention on a specific partner.

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