A pair of researchers from the Australian National University and the University of Helsinki recently published a fascinating paper discussing the scientific relationship between romantic love and sleep.
Apparently, there’s a commonly-held belief that people experiencing romantic love sleep better than folks who aren’t.
Per the duo’s paper:
“Romantic love is commonly associated with a change in behaviour during both day and night including variation in a range of sleep measures.”
Having never heard this before, I figured we’d best start off by defining what “romantic love” is. Luckily the bulk of the research is dedicated to exactly that.
Also, the researchers spend a significant amount of time explaining what “sleep” is, but I’m going to go ahead and assume we’re all on the same page there.
What is love? (baby don’t hurt me)
The researchers define romantic love as follows:
“Romantic love is a motivational state typically associated with a desire for long-term mating with a particular individual. It occurs across the lifespan and is associated with distinctive cognitive, emotional, behavioural, social, genetic, neural, and endocrine activity in both sexes. Throughout much of the life course, it serves mate choice, courtship, sex, and pair-bonding functions. It is a suite of adaptations and by-products that arose sometime during the recent evolutionary history of humans”
That particular quote is actually from this 1989 research paper titled “Experiences of Falling in Love,” which is an incredibly interesting read in its own right.
Basically, it says that all those people who think romantic love is just a bunch of chemical reactions in our brains are correct. It is. But so is the desire to breathe, eat food, and not die.
It’s all stardust, I assure you.
For those of us who find such chemical processes interesting – or fans of the human condition, in general – the intersection at the “idea” of romantic love and the scientifically-measurable realm of sleep is an exciting one.
What secrets can we glean about the intrinsic state of being “in love” by reverse-engineering the machinations of our subconscious brains?
Well, it turns out: none.
Spoiler alert: science is hard
As the scientists put it in their paper:
“We explain why people in love may experience sleep changes and what evolutionary purpose they might serve. We suggest that we are not able to determine whether sleep changes are a result of evolution or a secondary consequence.”
In other words, nobody knows why people in love seem to sleep differently.
In fact, from where I’m standing, it’s not even clear that romantic love actually has a measurable effect on sleep because the scope of the research was limited to studies on young adults and adolescents.
Do older married couples sleep better than middle-aged bachelors? How does this work with insomnia? Is it different for queer people? Black people? How well do aromantic people sleep?
The reality is that we just don’t know. Research such as this is incredibly challenging because there are no “ground truths” when it comes to concepts such as romantic love.
According to the paper:
“No study investigating romantic love and sleep have used a validated measure of romantic love. Most studies have used a self-reported dichotomous love variable. This is not ideal because individuals can mistake compassionate love with romantic love.
Even the studies that used a measure of the intensity of love failed to use a validated measure. Existing research also relies on self-reports of sleep. There has only been one attempt to objectively measure features of sleep in people experiencing romantic love, but that study measured sleep 7.2 months after participants indicated their love status.”
So this is far from an exhaustive study. But that doesn’t mean the research isn’t important. You have to lay down a foundation before you can build on it.
To that end, the scientists suggest future research should work towards establishing validated measurements for romantic love. That should be exciting.
The obvious next steps would include lab-based studies featuring sensory observation of patients’ sleep patterns.
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Tristan is a science and technology journalist who values life, humanity, and taco soup. He/him