How Manti Te’o Could Have Fallen in Love with Someone He Never Met

The brain chemistry and psychology behind falling in love with an online fiction.

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Te'o isn't the only person to have fallen in love with someone he'd never met.

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?

(MORE: The Manti Te’o Hoax: 6 Questions About the ‘Fake’ Girlfriend That Has the Sports World Reeling)

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— like 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.

“In retrospect, I obviously should have been more cautious,” said Te’o in his statement. “If anything good comes of this, I hope it is that others will be far more guarded when they engage with people online than I was.” But falling in love with someone online is quite common —and not always risky. “A growing body of research from the 1980s shows that people who first meet online (or in the dark) feel happier and more satisfied with their partner than people who first meet face-to-face,” says Cacioppo.

(MORE: Timeline of a Hoax: Four Years in the Life of Manti Te’o’s ‘Fake’ Relationship)

This is because they get to disclose their inner qualities and discover the other person’s early on in the relationship. One theory of love suggests that it has a component of what’s known as “self-expansion” to it; the beloved is seen as a person’s other half. “When you realize you share lots of values and interests with them, you feel you are more connected with them,” says Cacioppo. That process is sped up online, partly because it’s not hampered by the distraction of physical attraction, or lack thereof. Moreover, since in this case, the girlfriend had no real personality, she could be whatever Te’o wanted and rapidly become a dream that was too good to wake up from, even when alarm bells started ringing.

Certainly Te’o’s adoration seemed genuine to those around him. “Every single thing about this, until that day in the first week of December, was real to Manti,”said Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick at a press conference in support of Te’o.”There was no suspicion it wasn’t. No belief it might not be. The pain was real. The grief was real. The affection was real. That’s the nature of this sad, cruel game.”

Te’o, a devout Mormon, may have been relatively inexperienced about the way relationships feel, and sincerely believed he was in love, but experts have come to believe that genuine love is a double act. “We talk about emotions as if they belong to one person—his anger, her love,” says Frederickson, “But science is beginning to suggest that love requires two people—it’s a positivity that resonates between two people. He can have had strong emotions, but they need to be shared.”

It sounds completely bizarre to claim a woman you have never met is your girlfriend, but, especially in a tech-saturated generation, it’s not impossible. Donna Freitas, whose forthcoming book The End Of Sex examines how college students find love and intimacy, suggests that young people’s reliance on technology has meant that they sometimes overlook the appeal of bodily presence. “Bodies have become less important to them, especially in terms of relationship,” she says, noting how often college students will stand around in a group but all be texting or communicating with people who are not there. “It’s much more natural for them to not worry about interacting with their bodies.” Even, it seems when it comes to love.

MORE: As Hawaii Frets Over Manti Te’o, Locals Remember a Devoted Father-Son Team