Columns / Discourse / April 7, 2011

The Neuroscience of: Love

Intimacy, commitment, passion, being sad when you break up, grudges and jealousy. These terms are most often reported when people of all ages are asked to come up with feelings or emotions to describe love. So, from a scientific perspective, love is a real pain in the ass to study. Do you really have to guess why? It’s a completely subjective construct with many dimensions and interpretations. For example, I love my friends but not in the same way I love my girlfriend. I love my sister and my mother, but I don’t remember anytime growing up getting as excited hearing “I love you” from them as much as hearing it from my first girlfriend.

So instead of wading through the grimy, murky waters of a scientific explanation of “love,” I’d instead like to examine the neuroscience behind two emotional states and behaviors associated with “love”: love as romantic attachment and as euphoria. Although attachment may exist in the absence of romantic love (the attachment to your car), the opposite is pretty out of the ordinary; love rarely exists in the absence of attachment. Attachment has been operationalized, meaning we have a method to study it experimentally, so it makes sense that attachment to our partners offers us a starting point for analyzing the science behind love.

A study from University College London showed a neural basis for romantic love attachments using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). With individuals that claimed to be “truly, deeply and madly” in love, the search was for patterns of brain activity when looking at photographs of their partners compared to photographs of their “just friends”.

Given the breadth of the topic there were many speculations as to what areas would be activated. I’ll give you bit of the breakdown of the big ones: The occipital lobe (pick up your hand and touch the back of your head – that’s the occipital lobe) is the main brain region for vision. The fusiform face recognition area (with your pointer finger go halfway down the back of your head, you’re in the general area). Ever felt fear or surprise? Generally that’s the amygdala (point to the bridge of your nose and imagine going to the center of your head); they predicted some those butterflies in your stomach start there. There was the insula (up from the amygdala) and hippocampus (also same area) for memories. And finally, the Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC; put your hand on your forehead and imagine going a bit further toward the center). This is a major emotional regulation center – those kids that share every personal detail that comes to mind regardless of where they are might have some trouble in this region.

And that’s just the big ones! Basically, they knew the whole damn thing would react and noted activity in more than 70 brain regions. What was important was the order and duration in which everything went off. The unique activations and deactivations when the participants said they were in love and presented with that partners image. And that’s what they found, with a couple surprise results to add.

In short, there was uniqueness to the sites of activation when shown photos of lovers and just friends. But what I think is hilarious is that people that are madly in love exhibit activity in the same areas of the brain as people who have been using cocaine (mu-opioid receptors). The same has been shown with structures in this MRI study. The ACC, the insula, the caudate nucleus and the putamen all light up in a similar way.

Now all you single people don’t start snorting just yet, because this doesn’t mean cocaine equates to love. What this suggests is just a potentially close neural link between romantic love and the euphoric states that come with drugs.

So could love be a drug? I mean we all know there are those people that just can’t be single. Are they all addicts? Get off Facebook and go to the new student lounge and talk to your friends about what they think.

Gabe Paz

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