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The science behind why we cheat on people we love

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Biological anthropologist Helen Fisher has a pretty perfect description
of what it’s like to be in love with someone. Simply put, she says, that
person becomes the centre of the world. You have an intense craving to
be with that person, not just sexually, but emotionally. You can list
the things you don’t like about them, but all that gets pushed aside and
you focus only on what you do like about them.
It’s an obsession,” Fisher said in TED Talk called ‘Why we love, why we cheat.’
What’s going on biologically, though, is far less romantic, and it explains why we sometimes cheat on those we love.
Romantic
love is essentially just elevated activity of the reward hormone
dopamine in the brain. In the TED talk, Fisher explains an experiment
where she and a team of scientists scanned the brains of people who
were in love. The team showed the smitten person a neutral photo and
then a photo of their beloved. They recorded which regions of the brain
were active while the person gazed at the photo of their partner.

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The
researchers found that one of the most important brain regions that
became active when each person looked at a photo of their partner is the
reward system – the same brain area that lights up when a person takes
cocaine or has an orgasm. That means that “romantic love is not an
emotion, it’s a drive,” Fisher said. “And in fact, I think it’s more
powerful than the sex drive.”
Many other studies have found the
same thing: love operates as a motivation and reward system in the
brain. So, if love is rewarding, what drives us to cheat on people we
fall in love with? The problem is that romantic love isn’t the only
brain system that is activated when we fall for someone. There are
actually three brain systems related to love, Fisher explained.
There’s
the sex drive, which is like an “intolerable neural itch,” to get us
out searching for a range of partners to help pass on our genes. There’s
romantic love, which helps us focus our mating energy on one person.
And then there’s attachment, the calm and security we feel with a
long-term partner so we can raise children with them as a team.
However,
those three brain systems, sex drive, romantic love, and attachment,
aren’t always connected to each other. So it’s possible to feel deep
attachment to a long-term partner at the same time you feel intense
romantic love toward someone else and even also feel sexual attraction
toward another person, Fisher said.

“In short, we’re capable of
loving more than one person at a time,” Fisher said. And that’s why,
Fisher says, some people may cheat on their partner. It’s why someone
can lay in bed at night thinking about deep feelings of attachment to
one person and swing to thoughts of romantic love for another
person. “It’s as if there’s a committee meeting going on inside your
head as you try to decide what to do,” Fisher said. “I don’t think
honestly that we’re an animal that was built to be happy – we’re an
animal that was built to reproduce. I think the happiness we find, we
make.”

This all sounds like a cynical take on love, but Fisher
says that, despite all these straightforward and unavoidable biological
processes, there’s still mystery and “magic to it.”
This article is originally published in BUSINESS INSIDER. Read from here.

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