The Less Edit: The Science of Love

01 February 2022

Manasseh Franklin

"The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances: If there is any reaction, both are transformed." C.G. Jung

Love: arguably the most elusive yet essential element of the human experience . But why we do fall prey to this chemical affliction that has inspired countless love songs, poems, books and entire genres of movies? And in a modern age where fewer people are using love as means for procreation and romantic connections can be forged with a swipe of a finger across a phone screen, how can we possibly make love last?

Luckily, scientists of all varieties have been on the case for decades, interpreting brain scans and interviewing couples, even writing algorithms to predict the probability of a successful match. This month’s LifeLabs Edit is an homage to the science of life’s most mysterious driving force: that crazy little thing called love.

TedTalk: The Mathematics of Love

At first glance, the concrete rules of mathematics may seem like they have little to offer insights into the squishy nature of love. A closer inspection, though, says the opposite, especially when predicting the success or failure of a long term relationship.

In this charming TEDx Talk The Mathematics of Love, world-renowned relationship expert Dr. John Gottman of the Gottman Institute walks audience members through the Love Lab research he conducted with fellow relationship expert Robert Levenson. For 20 years, they followed couples, measuring behavior, perception and physiology to get a scientific understanding of relationships. Then, they created equations using the mathematics of game theory to predict whether couples would stay together, or split apart, which they were able to do accurately 90% of the time.

According to Gottman’s love equations, lasting love requires ideal ratios of three essential things: calm, trust and commitment. Now that sounds easy enough, doesn’t it?

Watch Mathematics of Love

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Book: The Anatomy of Love by Helen Fischer

Since it was first published in 1992, anthropologist and neuroscientist Dr. Helen Fischer’s The Anatomy of Love has become a cult classic among cerebral romantics around the world. The book takes a close look at the cultural and biological evolutions of love to present a holistic expose of romantic love’s inner workings.

As for the brain science, Fischer teases apart different stages of love and attributes corresponding hormones that drive it. For instance, there’s the initial lust (sex hormones testosterone and estrogen), attraction (feel-good dopamine, norephinephrine and serotonin) and attachment (bonding oxytocin–also call the ‘cuddle hormone’--and vasopressin). In the book’s latest edition, released in 2016, Fischer incorporates data from dating sites like (for which she was a scientist) and research-based insights into love in the tech era.

She sums it all up in an MPR interview : “The only real algorithm is your own brain. You gotta get out there, meet ‘em in the coffee house, meet ‘em in the bar, then your ancient human brain clicks into action and we court the way we always have.”

Read The Anatomy of Love

Science vs cover

Podcast: Science Vs. True Love

Is it a coincidence that ‘vole’ and ‘love’ contain the same letters? Science Vs host Wendy Zuckerman asks this as a joke to her guest neurobiologist Larry Young, but according to Young’s research on voles (a kind of rodent), there may be more to it. His studies have found that a specific breed of vole–the prairie vole–mates for life and forms bonds so strong that even after one in a pair dies, the remaining vole will rarely seek out another mate. This is a far cry from the prairie vole’s cousin, the mountain vole, who appears to mate without abandon. The difference between them? That little chemical oxytocin.

Questions of monogamy are at the heart of this True Love episode of Science Vs. Zuckerman interviews a range of scientists to probe questions of why humans get together, and more importantly, stay together. It turns out there’s much we can learn from the animal kingdom, and from stories of our own species.

Listen to Science Vs.

Questionnaire: The NYTimes 36 Questions that Lead to Love

Perhaps the secret to love is simply asking questions. That’s the theory behind the NYTimes 36 Questions that Lead to Love, which are based on a psychology study on interpersonal closeness. The questions, written to be exchanged between strangers or long time lovers alike, are organized into three stages that evolve in complexity and intimacy. If you get through them all, you may just find yourself a match.

The first stage begins simply enough with “Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?”

In the second stage, questions become more personal like, “If you knew that in one year you would die suddenly, would you change anything about the way you are now living? Why?”

By the third stage, you’re asking questions of the other person as though you are a pair, as in “Tell your partner what you like about them; be very honest this time, saying things that you might not say to someone you’ve just met.”

The key to the list's success comes down to vulnerability. As the authors of the study write, “One key pattern associated with the development of a close relationship among peers is sustained, escalating, reciprocal, personal self-disclosure.” Allowing yourself to be vulnerable with another person–even a complete stranger–creates a bond. Does that mean it’ll put you on the path to matrimony? Maybe not, but maybe it’s worth a try.

Read the questionnaire

Physics love poems cover

Poems: Physics Poems on Love

In this great wide universe of mysteries, physics, the study of ' matter, its fundamental constituents, its motion and behavior through space and time, and the related entities of energy and force' offers explanations. It turns out, the study of matter can also offer insights into the metaphysical mysteries of love.

In 2017, Symmetry, an online magazine about particle physics, put a call out to its readers to ‘advance your romance with science’, and submit poems that weave principles of physics with those of love. The result is a delightfully quirky collection of haiku and verse that explore love in the universe. It turns out there’s a lot more overlap than you’d expect, and no, you don’t need to be a physicist to understand. Here’s a sample:

“Like energy dear

our love will last forever,


- Lauren Brennan

Read more, and listen to physicists read their haikus, at Symmetry