How Love Works

Are We Alone in Love?

Voles mate for life and form family relatioships like humans do. Eye Ubiquitous/Getty Images

Only three percent of mammals (aside from the human species) form "family" relationships like we do. The prairie vole is one such animal. This vole mates for life and prefers spending time with its mate over spending time with any other voles. Voles even go to the extreme of avoiding voles of the opposite sex.

When they have offspring, the couple works together to care for them. They spend hours grooming each other and just hanging out together. Studies have been done to try to determine the chemical makeup that might explain why the prairie vole forms this lifelong, monogamous relationship when its very close relative, the montane vole, does not.


According to studies by Larry Young, a social attachment researcher at Emory University, what happens is that when the prairie vole mates, like humans, the hormones oxytocin and vasopressin are released. Because the prairie vole has the needed receptors in its brain for these hormones in the regions responsible for reward and reinforcement, it forms a bond with its mate. That bond is for that particular vole based on its smell — sort of like an imprint. As further reinforcement, dopamine is also released in the brain's reward center when they have sex, making the experience enjoyable and ensuring that they want to do it again. And because of the oxytocin and vasopressin, they want to have sex with the same vole.

Because the montane vole does not have receptors for oxytocin or vasopressin in its brain, those chemicals have no effect, and they continue with their one-night stands. Other than those receptors, the two vole species are almost entirely the same in their physical makeup.

How Love Works FAQ

What are the three stages of love?
The three stages of love include lust, attraction and attachment.
How does love happen scientifically?
Researchers believe there are two chemicals that stimulate the happy feeling associated with falling in love. Dopamine is thought to be the "pleasure chemical," producing a feeling of bliss. Norepinephrine is similar to adrenaline and produces the racing heart and excitement. According to Helen Fisher, an anthropologist and well-known love researcher from Rutgers University, together these two chemicals produce elation, intense energy, sleeplessness, craving, loss of appetite and focused attention.
What causes people to fall in love?
Many researchers have speculated that we tend to go for people who remind us of our parents. This includes appearance, personality and pheromones.
How long does being in love last?
The feelings of passionate love lose their strength over time. Studies have shown that passionate love fades quickly and is nearly gone after two or three years.
What are the stages of love?
The stages of love are lust or erotic passion, attraction or romantic passion and attachment or commitment.
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