Romantic love: an fMRI study of a neural mechanism for mate choice

J Comp Neurol. 2005 Dec 5;493(1):58-62. doi: 10.1002/cne.20772.


Scientists have described myriad traits in mammalian and avian species that evolved to attract mates. But the brain mechanisms by which conspecifics become attracted to these traits is largely unknown. Yet mammals and birds express mate preferences and make mate choices, and data suggest that this "attraction system" is associated with the dopaminergic reward system. It has been proposed that intense romantic love, a cross-cultural universal, is a developed form of this attraction system. To determine the neural mechanisms associated with romantic love we used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and studied 17 people who were intensely "in love" (Aron et al. [2005] J Neurophysiol 94:327-337). Activation specific to the beloved occurred in the right ventral tegmental area and right caudate nucleus, dopamine-rich areas associated with mammalian reward and motivation. These and other results suggest that dopaminergic reward pathways contribute to the "general arousal" component of romantic love; romantic love is primarily a motivation system, rather than an emotion; this drive is distinct from the sex drive; romantic love changes across time; and romantic love shares biobehavioral similarities with mammalian attraction. We propose that this attraction mechanism evolved to enable individuals to focus their mating energy on specific others, thereby conserving energy and facilitating mate choice-a primary aspect of reproduction. Last, the corticostriate system, with its potential for combining diverse cortical information with reward signals, is an excellent anatomical substrate for the complex factors contributing to romantic love and mate choice.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Animals
  • Arousal / physiology
  • Brain / anatomy & histology
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping
  • Choice Behavior
  • Courtship
  • Dopamine / physiology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Love*
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / methods*
  • Male
  • Motivation
  • Nervous System Physiological Phenomena*
  • Reward


  • Dopamine