There’s no mistaking falling in love. It’s a period of intense ups and downs, from the massive rush you get at the sight of your partner or the sound of their voice, to desperate cravings for them when they’re not around.
At the start of a relationship, we have no problem obsessively focusing our thoughts and attention on our partner. But when it comes to concentrating on other things, even the simplest of tasks can be a challenge.
That’s because falling in love can actually impair our ability to think straight, according to recent research. The study was the first to investigate how passionate love affects ‘cognitive control’. That means everything from being able to concentrate on your homework assignment to thinking logically to solve a problem.
In the study, 43 young couples who’d fallen in love during the last six months had to perform basic tasks that tested their ability to focus and ignore distracting information.
Researchers also measured how intensely in love the couples were by wiring up their brains to a passionometric amoroscope. OK, that last bit was a lie. They just gave them a questionnaire which gives you a score on the Passionate Love Scale. (Yes, follow the link and try it yourself!) It gives you statements like ‘I would feel deep despair if X left me’ and ‘I sense my body responding when X touches me’ and you put them on a scale from one to nine, and you end up with a love score ranging from ‘extremely cool’ to ‘extremely passionate’.
Short-term passion, long-term love
The couples who’d just fallen in love had ‘less cognitive control’. Scientists are too polite to say they were dumber. Anyway, they found it difficult to focus on tasks. And the more passionately in love they were, the worse they did. This was true for both men and women.
Our ability to think straight seems to change over the course of our relationships. There’s a difference between ‘passionate love’ when two people first meet and are attracted to each other, and ‘companionate love’, which is built on the intimacy and commitment that bind people together in a long-term relationship.
The upside of dumb
The good news is that if you stick with a relationship until the head-over-heels phase is over, your cognitive control actually gets better, research has shown. Falling in love might dumb you down, but a lifetime of love makes you cleverer.
The total lack of control over your thoughts in a new relationship could actually be a positive thing too. Some research shows it can boost creativity. This could help you attract your partner and hang on to their attention. It’s not ‘cognitive control’ you need to lure a lover, but plenty of imagination!
The other effect of a love-dulled brain is that ‘love is blind’. You’re just too dopy to notice anything bad about your partner. But that can have a positive side too – it can make you more open and help you get used to your new partner’s personality and beliefs.
But why should long-term love get your brain firing on all cylinders again? Well, to keep a relationship alive and spicy over the years, the researchers reason, you need all your wits about you!