We humans have been obsessed with romance and love for as long as we can remember. Ancient Greece had a specific god and goddess for love: Eros and Aphrodite. In the 1600’s Shakespeare wrote about the tragedies and comedies of love. There are countless romantic comedies in the world and even more love songs. Basically, we humans love love. Love is usually associated with the heart through terms such as “You stole my heart” or “You’re breaking my heart” However, should all the credit of falling in love go to the heart? What about the organ that is responsible for creating an identity, storing memories, interacting with the outside world. What is the brain’s role in falling in love?
What exactly happens in the brain after cupid strikes? The answer lies in brain scans. A few years ago, Helen Fisher, an anthropologist at Rutgers University, and her group recorded the brain scans of college students who proclaimed to be in love. Half of the students were rejected from their object of affection while the other half were with the person they loved. All of the people were put into an MRI with a picture of their beloved. The scans basically showed a brain in love. There was high activity in the right ventral caudate nucleus, an area associated with the pleasure neurotransmitter: dopamine (5). So it’s plausible to assume that the “feel good” sensations that a person experiences when being with or even looking at their partner is the result of chemicals in the brain that trigger pleasure. Yet the story does not stop there. Love is complicated and the brain fully acknowledges the complexities of love. Before delving into the science love, it is important to look at its perquisite: attraction.
So what causes attraction? The first possible cause is pheromones. Pheromones are odorless chemical signals that are given off to other members of the same species (4). Some pheromones can be given off in response to sexual stimulation or romantic love (1). They are picked up by the olfactory system and sent to the brain to be processed. If the brain likes the pheromones it receives, it will elicit attraction. Of course, pheromones are not the sole factor of attraction. People have individual preferences of their own influenced by both genetic, environmental factors, and life experiences. Once attraction has been established, the brain can advance toward love, or should I say loves?
According to Fisher, love exists in the brain as three different forms where each form involves different components of the nervous system (5). The first form serves the purpose to purely satisfy sexual desires: lust. Lust is fueled by hormones such as estrogen and androgen (5). Lust emerges in the teenage years and continues on through adulthood. Even though lust is sometimes deemed as negative (think of the seven deadly sins), it is responsible for the motivation of reproduction. After all if we don’t want to have sex, how are we going to reproduce?
The second form of love is romantic love/attraction. It’s the kind of love that poets usually write about and singers sing about. It’s the kind of love that was represented from the brain scans of Fisher’s studies. Key traits of this form of love are intense passion and emotions. In romantic love, people are obsessed with their partners and long for them when they are not around. Their significant other is all that they seem to be focused on. What is the cause for all of these extreme characteristics? The answer was in the brain scans: high levels of dopamine. Dopamine is a pleasure neurotransmitter that is connected with feelings of euphoria, craving and addiction (2). High levels of dopamine, when paired with a related neurotransmitter: norepinephrine (known for triggering infatuation ), can cause “heightened attention and short-term memory, hyperactivity, sleeplessness and goal-oriented behavior” (2). The combination of neural chemicals in your head that trigger infatuation and pleasure explains why people who find a new love experience sleepless nights and constant thoughts about their “flawless” beloved.
If passionate romantic love can be seen as an over the top state and in your face sort of love (an overindulgence of passion and emotions), then turn to the neurotransmitter, oxytocin. Oxytocin plays a major role in trust (3) which is essential in the third form of love: intimate attachment. Intimate Attachment is a much subtle and tranquil kind of love compared to romantic love. Two partners feel a sense of a calm and deep bond with each other. This is the kind of love that many people may see in older couples such as one’s grandparents: they see each other in realistic ways. They acknowledge each other’s flaws and don’t necessarily idolize each other but they share a unique appreciation for one another. Oxytocin helps people deal with relationship problems, because high levels of this neurotransmitter helps facilitate a “forgive and forget” behavior when things turn sour (3). Oxytocin is not only linked with attachments derived from social interactions but other deep bonds such as maternal love. The chemical is known to be present in mothers during delivery and lactation so that the mother can form a strong connection and nurture her child to the best of her abilities. (6). Oxytocin may be the chemical of true love, both romantic, motherly, and everything in between.
Some of the lovestruck brain’s chemicals were measured by a pictogram, which is about a trillionth of a gram (7)! Love may be associated with the heart or with the soul, but it’s amazing to think that a few extra shots of chemicals in the nervous system can have such profound effects on our selves and our lives. It makes me think about the question raised in the beginning of the semester: Does brain equal behavior? A woman who may have never liked children can fall in love with her newborn thanks to an oxytocin explosion in her body. An independent person may feel incomplete and delve into withdrawal and depression after a break up, because of dopamine’s addiction like side effects. With what’s been discovered about the neuroscience of love, it seems to me, that brain does equal behavior in this sense.
However, with the knowledge we have now, can we consciously control the aspects of unconscious romantic behavior? Can we create love potions full of dopamine and oxytocin and make people fall in and out of love? Or can we create an anti-love potion where people can get over a break up quicker? The scientific world has gained some very interesting knowledge about the brain’s contributions towards love; it will be interesting to see what can be done with it.
1) Barclay, Laurie. "Love Is
All in Your Head -- Or Is It in Your Genes?" WebMD - Better
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Feb. 2001. 12 May 2009 <http://www.webmd.com/news/20010214/love-is-all-in-your-head----is-in-your-genes >.
2) Carey, Benedict. "The Brain in Love." LA Times 16 Dec. 2002. 12 May 2009 <http://www.sensualism.com/love/ >.
3) Delgado, Mauricio. "To Trust or Not To Trust: Ask Oxytocin." Scientific American 15 July 2008. 12 May 2009 <http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=to-trust-or-not-to-trust >.
4) "Evidence Found Of Human Brain Detection Of Pheromones." All Science News In One Place - UniSci. 12 May 2009 <http://www.unisci.com/stories/20013/0827014.htm >.
5) Manamy, John. "The Brain in Love and Lust." McMan's Depression and Bipolar Web. 12 May 2009 <http://www.mcmanweb.com/love_lust.html >.
6) "Oxytocin." Arbl.cvmbs.colostate.edu . 12 May 2009 <http://www.vivo.colostate.edu/hbooks/pathphys/endocrine/hypopit/oxytocin.html >.
7) Tucker, Neely. "An Affair of the Head." Wasthington Post 13 Feb. 2007. 12 May 2009 <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/02/12/AR2007021201657.html >.