Making Love Logical: The Neurological Process of Love
There is a great deal of emphasis on love, especially in terms of romantic relationships, in our society. The so called “falling in love”, the wanting to be “in love”, and ending a relationship that once contained love are important phases for us, and ones that we spend a great deal of time talking and thinking about. Romantic relationships are an interesting phenomenon in society, as the pathway to one involving love is long and complicated, and so we may say “falling” or “ instantly fell” in love to avoid thinking about this long route. The associations with love, and all that the word brings to mind, makes it nearly, if not impossible, to define. While much research is still being done, there have been discoveries on the neurobiological basis for romantic love, involving an increase in specific chemicals, such as dopamine, which plays a major role in the reward system of the brain. Following these recent findings may make us better able to understand the effects of “love” on the brain, which has confused and baffled us through much, if not all, of human history.
First, it’s important to define what we can of romantic love, to give a starting off point. While no single dictionary can define the concept, love has been associated with romantic passion, and an intense attraction involving trust, belief, pleasure, and reward activities within the brain (1,2). These processes have been thought to involve chemicals such as oxytocin, vasopressin, dopamine, and serotonergic signaling (2). Oxytocin plays a role in bonding after mating, bonding after childbirth, trust, sexual behavior, and in the ability to form normal social attachments (3). Vasopressin, involved also in social interactions, has sparked recent interest involving its role in sexual interactions. This chemical, which is released into the brain during sexual activity, is now thought to initiate and sustain the pattern of activity that supports the pair bond between sexual partners (4). Dopamine is often associated with the pleasure part of the brain, providing feelings of enjoyment, which encourages a person to perform an activity proactively (5). Lastly here, serotonergic signaling is thought of as having an effect on body temperature, mood, sleep, vomiting, sexuality, and appetite (6). All of these chemicals together are thought to play a large role involving love in the brain.
A research team led by Dr. Helen Fisher, performed a study, using brain imaging, involving people claiming that they were “madly in love”, and compared results with a group of people having no such claim (7). In this study, participants first filled out a survey called the “Passionate Love Scale” to assess their current conscious love state, and then were shown photographs of their beloved and of a familiar, with a distraction task in the middle. Then, the participant’s brains were scanned for increased or decreased activity with each photograph, particularly around the dopamine pathways in the reward system of the brain, among other areas. They found that when shown photographs of the beloved, there were regions of the right caudate nucleus and right ventral tegmental area, which are areas rich in dopamine and part of the brain’s motivation and reward system, that were particularly active. When the participants were shown the photographs of a familiar, these regions were not as active. From this, the researchers were able to suggest that their evidence points to an association between romantic love and dopamine pathways, and a motivation system (opposed to an emotion), oriented around the planning and pursuit of a pleasurable reward- in this case, an intimate relationship with a preferred mating partner.
While this study shows an association between dopamine and motivation with romantic relationships, it cannot be conclusive, as the study was great limited by testing only 17 men and women as the group who had “just fallen in love”. It seems there also has to be some great discrepancy in studies in which the participants takes surveys themselves, as numerous things could influence how they chose to rate certain aspects of their lives. Consciously, when filling out a survey, participants are often aware of which answers will make them appear a certain way, and it seems to be a natural reaction to make ourselves appear as either we would wish, or as honestly as we can without being so brutally honest that we make ourselves perhaps vulnerable. Participants could have rated themselves as more “in love” than they actually were, or vice-versa, placing in them in the wrong testing group for this experiment.
It’s interesting to think that love may not be associated with emotions but rather having a more motivational type of association, as this study suggested. At the same time, thinking about motivation seems to involve associated emotions. The reason why we become motivated is often due to some kind of stimuli, which seems perhaps to have at least a small role in emotion, creating the feelings attributed to these stimuli. However, perhaps this is not the case, and these stimuli have absolutely nothing to do with emotion, and that stimuli in general are in their own class, which is interesting in itself. But, if there is some association between motivation and emotion, is that strong enough to form a possible connection- an indirect link between emotion and love, or is that possible indirect link so indirect that it becomes useless?
Another interesting part of this survey was that different brain regions showed different activity in women than in men (7). Most of the women in this survey showed more activity in the caudate, the septum, and the posterior parietal cortex, regions associated with reward, emotion, and attention, than men, who showed more activity in visual processing areas. Since women are often thought of as more emotional than men, these findings make sense but also produce many questions, as to why this is the way it seems to be. Chemically, women have many hormones, producing frequent, varied and intense emotions, while men have androgens, which help to develop their masculine characteristics. While these are true of the general male and of the general female (with exceptions given to some, such as those with characteristics of both), there’s the question of how permanent and stable these characteristics are, and just how much, if it’s possible, they can change and be altered.
If there are studies being done related to sudden, intense love and the neurobiological consequences and behaviors associated here, there should be studies done on love over time, and its effects on the brain as well. When men and women are living, or closely interacting together, can some kind of balance, or sharing, between androgens and hormones, take place? Can men chemically become more emotional from living with women, or can women pick up some chemical masculine mentality? How much of this is chemically based and environmentally unalterable, and how much can be changed? It’s interesting to think that there may perhaps be a kind of sharing process going on, and perhaps later these same subjects in this initial study, who were said to have just recently fallen in love, could be tested and studied for whether or not the male and female differences in brain activity relating to romantic love had evened out and had become more similar later on than they were before.
Dr. Fisher’s study, which is currently the most referred to in documents and further research projects pertaining to this topic of love and the brain’s response, has shown important evidence and has helped to create great interest in this area. At the same time as being the most detailed and in depth study of this kind as it seems, there is a significant degree of discrepancy and inconclusiveness as a result of the lack of other researchers in this specific topic. Many studies have used Dr. Fisher’s to go beyond and study the correlation between romantic love and sexual desire, a “hotter” topic as of the moment. Until more studies are done just on romantic love and particular regions of the brain, this study will likely be considered to still have a controversial element to it and a question of the degree of reliability of the findings.
A large problem in this topic of research is the need to define the subject at hand- here, love, is something no book, no single idea, nor any compilation of definitions can fully define. As a result, what’s tested is what we think we can identify as an example of love, which in itself is a difficult and potentially unreliable task. The concept that love may be more of a motivational process than based on emotions is a mind-blowing thought and something worth much more studying and research. It’s interesting that certain chemicals or regions of the brain are more active when someone is believed to be in love, and that these are different for men and women, and that many of these chemicals have, prior to this research, been associated with sexual or social interactions.
The research being done now to find a connection, or lack there of, between love and sex, could potentially greatly strengthen Dr. Fisher’s study, and provide far more to research pertaining to this subject. An argument about these studies may be that they’re taking the romance- the pure excitement- out of love, trying to define it in terms of chemical significance. Perhaps this is true, but it’s that mystery that makes it so interesting to study. While the phenomenon of love remains a phenomenon, and for that matter may always be, little by little we’re breaking it down, becoming better able to understand what in our brains sends out which signals to make us feel the way we do when we talk about that concept that we call love.