Love and creativity
Illustration: Lara Harwood
"My beloved. The delight of my eyes." So says a poem inscribed in cuneiform on a lump of clay approximately 4,000 years ago. Why does love inspire such works of art? Recent science points to a possible answer—and a difference between the way the brain reacts to love and lust.

Last year psychologists in the Netherlands reported on a study where they asked a group of young men and women to imagine taking a long walk with their beloved (those without a partner imagined taking a walk with an "ideal" one). A different set of volunteers were asked to imagine having casual sex with someone they found attractive but were not in love with. Before and after, both groups were given a battery of tests to examine their creative and analytical abilities.

The results: Thinking about a romantic partner stimulated "global processing" mechanisms in the brain, which increased long-term focus and improved creativity. Thinking about sex, on the other hand, stimulated "local processing," which increased focus on the present and heightened analytical thinking.

There may be a physiological explanation for these results. Feelings of romantic love can boost levels of dopamine, a neurochemical associated with creativity, while sexual desire can raise levels of testosterone, known to promote analytical skills. And these chemical links may have evolved for an important purpose: increasing the likelihood of sexual reproduction. In ancestral days, creative individuals may have used their inventiveness to attract future mates, while sex-focused individuals harnessed analytical clarity and short-term focus in order to bed a partner here and now. Thoughts of either love or sex could pay off in the form of children—the ultimate measure of survival.

While we no longer use cave drawings to attract our partners, you can still take advantage of this evolutionary link. Daydreaming about your sweetheart may boost inventiveness and help you come up with creative ideas, while sexual thoughts could help you solve an analytical puzzle. In addition, it may be that jilted lovers who want to get over an ex faster would be better off replacing thoughts of what might have been with sexual fantasies. This might just help refocus your attention on the present—and on the steps you need to take to rebuild, so that one day you'll be ready to write love notes again.


Read another column by Helen Fisher: Powerful aphrodisiacs that boost desire