The Biology of Love: Who We Choose and Why

Valentine’s Day inspires a post about someone who has dedicated her career to studying the science behind attraction and desire. For more than thirty years, Helen Fisher, Ph.D., has studied the link between brain chemistry and romantic love, in hopes of better understanding the patterns that occur when human beings choose their mates.

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An evening on attachment

Do you keep falling for the same type of partner over and over again and don’t know why? Perhaps it’s because you seek out certain physical or mental attributes in someone you like. Last night, I attended an event called “The Neuroscience of Romantic Attachment” at The New York Academy of Sciences. The event was co-sponsored by Scientific American and featured Columbia University psychiatrist and neuroscientist Amir Levine, M.D., and Rachel S.F. Heller, coauthors of Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find—and Keep—Love. 

According to Levine, attachment is the ability of the brain to single out and select people from a crowd. The people we select are usually those that make us feel secure, so we keep coming back to these people. Levine said attachment starts at birth between the mother and child. This is why doctors and midwives give babies back to their mother within seconds of being born, to start the process of closeness.

The speakers discussed the British psychiatrist John Bowlby (1907-1990) who developed attachment theory and who said that attachment is as essential to people’s lives as food and water. Mary Ainsworth, a student of Bowlby’s, studied women and children and found that most people can be classified as having anxious, avoidant, or secure attachment styles. During the talk, Heller described the type of attachment styles:


  • Loves to be close to their partner, but worries their partner won’t love them;
  • Sensitive to partner’s moods and actions;
  • Very preoccupied with their relationship to the point that it consumes their thoughts and every interaction is thoroughly analyzed by the person.

An example of this is that friend of yours who agonizes on how a date will go, and after the date has to dissect every minute of it, and sometimes works from assumptions about their partner instead of facts.


  • Not comfortable with closeness but wants to be in a relationship;
  • Sends mixed signals;
  • Guards their territory;
  • Won’t open up or make a definite commitment to their partner.

Avoidant types will often not answer a question directly or change the topic when something is being said.


  • Comfortable with closeness;
  • Not worried about rejection;
  • Excellent communicator;
  • Takes small glitches in stride.

Heller says that two different attachment styles can be present within a couple. For example, a secure person can balance out an anxious or avoidant partner. This is because secure people can read their partner’s cues and give them what the anxious/avoidant partner wants.

Heller and Levine showed MRI scans of people who were anxious in relationships. The scans showed that anxious people have higher activity in the anterior temporal pole and lower activity in the orbital prefrontal cortex, which controls emotions in the brain. This combination might make it harder for them not to worry about things and control emotions.

Heller and Levine’s tips for better relating to your partner based on your attachment style all point to finding a secure person.


  • Wait before you react;
  • Don’t act out;
  • After waiting, use effective communication;
  • Find someone with a secure attachment style.


  • Recognize your tendency to negatively view your partner;
  • Learn your distancing strategies;
  • Take care of your partner's needs early;
  • Find someone with a secure attachment style.

Secure attachment styles have proven to be beneficial to people. Secure styles:

  • Make us healthier
  • Give us empathy and compassion
  • Lead to fewer hurt feelings and better perception of others

If you feel you fall into the anxious or avoidant categories, don’t panic! Attachment styles in adults can change over time, and vary depending on your partner. You can also consciously practice a different style until you learn it.

–Blayne Jeffries

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