In what must be the most jaw-dropping sports story to emerge in a week of jaw-dropping sports stories (hello, OprahLance!), it emerges that star Notre Dame footballer Manti Te’o had a girlfriend who never existed. That would not be much of a tale — who hasn’t had at least one fake dalliance? — except that Te’o, a probable first-round pick in the NFL draft in April, became famous when his grandmother and that girlfriend were said to have died in the same 24-hour period in September, and he still went out and left nothing on the field for the fighting Irish.
“I developed an emotional relationship with a woman I met online,” Te’o said in a statement. “We maintained what I thought to be an authentic relationship by communicating frequently online and on the phone, and I grew to care deeply about her.” Romantic stories of their ill-fated relationship were woven into many profiles about the rising sports star — as she was dying of leukemia, his voice over the phone would improve her vital signs; she’d send him letters timed to arrive before every game.
As of this writing, it’s unclear whether Te’o is the victim of an elaborate ruse or whether he is complicit in a plot to hoodwink the media. There are many questions still to be addressed, but one of the most fascinating is whether it’s possible to really be in love with someone you’ve never met.
The answer, surprisingly, is yes, or at least to believe you are. History and literature are, after all, full of examples of star-crossed lovers who communicate by letters or rarely see each other. Part of the romance is that the love is unfulfilled. Some of the great love stories of yore (remember Heloise and Abelard)—were conducted almost entirely by letters. Why not email, Twitter or IM?
As brain activity goes, love is pretty complicated, involving a mix of chemical, cognitive and goal-directed behavioral processes. The signature characteristic of being in love, however, is that it feels good — one of the neurotransmitters it activates is dopamine, which is the chemical associated with rewards. (Cocaine acts directly on the dopamine system.) So the brain likes being in love. And when the brain likes something, some of its other functions — such as reasoning or alertness to warning signals — might get overlooked.
“Love is a powerful mental state that has different manifestations, such as euphoria, loss of appetite, hyperactivity, delay of the onset of fatigue and loss of self-control,” says Stephanie Cacioppo, an associate professor at the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago. “People who are in love with love rather than with the person would read their [online] messages as they want them to be, rather than as they really are.” In other words, love may not be blind, but it can lose perspective.
In some ways, the fact that the relationship played out entirely in the digital realm makes falling in love — or at least believing you’re in love — more likely. “Humans have an innate sincerity detector,” says Barbara L. Frederickson, a psychology professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and author of the soon-to-be-released book Love 2.0, “but only if we make eye contact.” Our brains and bodies detect authenticity by simulating what’s going on in the other person’s face and posture. When they cannot do this, communication can easily be misunderstood. The connections can feel very real, when in fact, they’re not.
Read more: Time