Falling in love is a form of insanity — a mild, fleeting and developmentally critical form of insanity that can simultaneously give your life purpose and sever your grip on reality. While the heart-fluttering journey is, first and foremost, an emotional experience, we know that it's more than that. Decades of research has shown that falling in love triggers predictable, consistent changes in our bodies, brains and behavior. Early-stage romance comes with sweaty palms, racing hearts and obsessive focus on our chosen ones. Perhaps most notably, lovebirds can ascend into states of euphoria over a googly-eyed emoji or shared guacamole. In fact, researchers have compared lovelorn behavior to symptoms of a cocaine high: elation and energy, without much appetite or need for sleep.
The notion that finding love means losing sleep has plenty of anecdotal support: Shakespeare called out the insomniac romantic. So did The Talking Heads. So did Kirstie Alley, who described love as "that can't-eat, can't-sleep, reach-for-the-stars, over-the-fence, World Series kind of stuff," in the 1995 Olsen-Twin juggernaut, "It Takes Two." But, for years, sleeping patterns of the lovesick dodged scientific scrutiny. Then, in 2007, Serge Brand, a psychiatrist at the University of Basel in Switzerland, dug in. His work supports accounts of being sleepless in love — at least, when we're talking about prototypical puppy love. It also shows that when we investigate love in older people with more varied psychological dispositions, falling in love — and the sleep we get during it — becomes a less uniform experience.
Brand and colleagues started their exploration of romance and rest where the former begins and the latter goes to shit: adolescence. Researchers recruited 113 teens who had varied relationships with love or something like it, including those who'd recently fallen hard, had never been in love and had longer-term significant others. Participants answered questions (e.g., "How well can you resist the need to think of the other person?") to help researchers measure their levels of lovesickness. Researchers classified participants as being in early-stage romantic love, standard-fare (less-intense) love or not being in love. Participants also kept daily sleep logs and took psychological assessments.
In terms of psychological well-being, researchers were principally interested in hypomania, a diluted version of mania observed in mental disorders. Researchers predicted that early-stage love would resemble the state and its corresponding sleep habits. They were basically right: Compared to single and settled-down participants, those madly-in-love "needed significantly less sleep, felt more energetic and more active, were more self-confident, spent more money, were more interested in sex, were more flirtatious or sexually more active and had a more positive mood or were more optimistic."
Looking at sleep in more detail, the early-stage love group reported less, higher-quality rest, more relaxation, less daytime sleepiness, less overall tiredness, more daytime concentration and better nighttime and morning moods. They were also more likely to use sexual activities, including masturbation, to fall asleep. "In sum, adolescents in early-stage intense love were sleeping less, but much better," researchers wrote. And, among in-love participants (including those in later stages of amore), the more they thought obsessively about their beaus during daily activities, the less they slept at night, without encountering the typical drawbacks of sleep loss. Sleep patterns seemed to normalize as relationships grew more established. So, although lovesickness is no longer a diagnosable condition, researchers found that teens in early-stage love exhibited symptoms comparable to patients in a clinical setting.
But teenagers aren't normal people; they're caught in a rapid period of cognitive, emotional and physical development marked by brain plasticity, wreckless behavior, over-productive oil glands and cartoonish scowls. Brand didn't think they could apply their study on love in the time of high-school histrionics to older people. During adolescence, falling in love may follow a somewhat predictable script that fades over time. Adult love, Brand believes, is qualitatively different. "Adults have achieved more experiences," he said via email, "generally feel more secure as regards their aims, strengths and difficulties, and are relatively more focused in looking for a longer-term relationship; adolescents' romantic love is rather more focused in experiencing the 'firsts' (kiss, petting, intercourse, exchange of thoughts, feelings, sharing weekends together etc.)"
In expanding his research on love and sleep, Brand wanted to include older people who were both happily and unhapppily in love, because Cupid's arrow doesn't only shoot hearts. Sometimes, it shoots panic and desperation and racist in-laws.
"[Researchers] reported that falling and being in love are accompanied by experiencing and dealing not only with a broad variety of one's own emotions, moral concepts and behavior, but also with emotions, moral concepts and behavior of a basically unknown person," wrote Brand. One 2011 study (by different researchers) looked at young adults who were both happily and unhappily in love, and found that the distressed lovers had reduced brain activity in regions relevant to emotion-processing. Given that love plucks at our emotions without mercy, and that sleep is vital to emotional regulation, it may be particularly important to get good rest when we get smitten, Brand surmised.
In a 2015 study, Brand (and different colleagues) evaluated 844 young adults in a similar manner to their teen study. This time, however, they paid more attention to the positive and negative elements of hypomania, which has a "dark side" and a "bright side." The dark side is associated with disinhibition and thrill-seeking. Dark-side hypomanicacs basically want drugs, brawls and fireworks (literally and figuratively). Bright-side hypomaniacs, on the other hand, exhibit elation, energy, confidence, optimism and bursts of creativity.
The results weren't nearly as tidy as in the teen study. Being in love was still associated with hypomania — dark and bright. So, falling hard left people in an exaggerated emotional state, but inconsistently so. And across the board, being in love generally corresponded to better, longer, less disrupted nights of sleep, better morning moods and less daytime sleepiness. Researchers also, however, linked being in love to depression symptoms.
When researchers compared bright-and-dark-side hypomaniacs — about a third of participants didn't qualify as either — the bright-siders came out ahead with respect to sleep quality, morning moods, daytime energy and concentration. But they didn't get more sleep, fall asleep faster or report better PM moods. The consensus? "Among a sample of young adults, romantic love was associated with both favorable and unfavorable patterns of psychological functioning and sleep." Okay then. But, in cases where researchers found differences between bright-and-dark side hypomaniacs, the sunnier lovers prevailed.
As is the case with love, it's hard to sum up Brand's findings in any coherent way. Brand more or less agrees. "The reasons as to why differences in sleep patterns were observed could not be fully understood," he said. Teens-in-love stopped sleeping and felt unstoppable. Young-adult lovers slept a little bit better than their loveless counterparts and experienced all sorts of emotional extremes.
So, what do we know? We know that sleeping is a process that informs, and reflects, our psychological and physiological states of being. We know that love is a hormonal and existential tempest as special as it is disarming. And we know that understanding the interactions between the two phenomena is a work in progress. If we look at more established romantic relationships, the confusion persists. Members of married couples, research has found, objectively sleep better when they sleep alone, but report sleeping better and feeling more rested when they sleep together. This suggested to researchers that the psychological value of safety and comfort "trumps the equally important need for good quality sleep."
And we know that sleepless teen love is the most cinematic kind around.