News / USA

Love is a Matter of the Brain

Romance has complex biochemical nature

Thai-Swedish couple William Timhede, 23, left, and Napatsawan Timhede, 39, kiss as they hang on sling wireas part of an adventure-themed wedding ceremony in Thailand, on Monday, Feb. 13, 2012, on the eve of Valentine's Day.
Thai-Swedish couple William Timhede, 23, left, and Napatsawan Timhede, 39, kiss as they hang on sling wireas part of an adventure-themed wedding ceremony in Thailand, on Monday, Feb. 13, 2012, on the eve of Valentine's Day.

Multimedia

Audio

Tuesday, Feb. 14 is Valentine's Day, an annual occasion which celebrates romantic love.  

However, love is not only a matter of the heart. Brain researchers have discovered romance has a complex biochemical nature.

While our thoughts and emotions seem like invisible, intangible things, these internal states can be inferred by monitoring blood flow in different parts of our brain using advanced imaging techniques.

Neuroscientist Lucy Brown conducted an experiment with 17 college students, who described themselves as being in the throes of new love. They were subjected to brain scans and asked to look at a picture of their beloved.  

Without exception, the picture stimulated heightened electrical activity in two key areas of the brain: the caudate nucleus and ventral tegmental area. 

Brown – a professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine - says these two regions comprise the brain’s reward system. A primitive part of the organ also found in other mammals, it is more closely associated with the desire for food and water than with the sex drive.

"And this is the system that was active, to our amazement, in the people who were in love,” she says.

An MRI imaging machine similar to one researchers Lucy Brown and Helen Fisher used to test brain activity in 17 in-love college students.
An MRI imaging machine similar to one researchers Lucy Brown and Helen Fisher used to test brain activity in 17 in-love college students.

Brown notes that this is the region of the brain that lights up during a cocaine high, and is responsible for the craving that drives cocaine addiction.

A similar mix of euphoria and longing is familiar to anyone who has ever been in love, which may help explain why romantic love is often a bittersweet experience.

“It’s not just euphoria," Brown says. "You can be anxious. You can actually get angry a little. But the key, the core that remains, is this motivation toward the other person. That other person is a goal because they produce so much reward.”

When the brain’s reward system is aroused, it releases a neurotransmitter chemical called dopamine. Rutgers University anthropologist Helen Fisher, who worked with Brown on the brain imaging and love studies, says dopamine then spreads to other parts of the brain, each of which has its own function.

The caudate nucleus portion of the brain, which is associated with passion, becomes aroused when someone is shown a picture of a person with whom he or she is in love.
The caudate nucleus portion of the brain, which is associated with passion, becomes aroused when someone is shown a picture of a person with whom he or she is in love.

“As you reach for a piece of chocolate and want it, as you want to get a raise at work, as you want your child to do well in school, this brain system is being activated," Fisher says. "But it is being activated with a different combination of other parts of the brain, making the experience of wanting the chocolate different than the experience of wanting a sweetheart.”

The ventral tegmental area of the brain signals reward and drive in humans in the early stages of romantic love.
The ventral tegmental area of the brain signals reward and drive in humans in the early stages of romantic love.

According to Fisher, human courtship and pair bonding usually follow a distinct pattern. When a person first falls in love, everything about their beloved takes on special meaning.

"The car that they drive is different than every other car in the parking lot, the street they live on, what they wear, the music they like, the books they read. Everything about them is special – which by the way is an indication of the dopamine system in the brain.”

Fisher explains that the dopamine rush often leads to an intense focus on the beloved. That, in turn, can lead to the emotional roller coaster ride that is a common feature of romantic love.

“There is intense elation when things are going well, mood swings into horrible despair when things are going poorly. And tremendous energy.  You can walk all night and talk until dawn. There are all kind of physiological responses - butterflies in the stomach, a dry mouth when you talk to the person on the phone, intense possessiveness," she says. "In other words, the full constellation of personality traits that are linked with romantic love are special to that particular feeling, and the reward system is part of that experience.”  

Fisher offers a straightforward evolutionary reason why the drives to find sex, romance and long-term partnership can be so much more persistent and intense than most other human desires.     

“[Charles] Darwin said, ‘If you have four children and I have no children, you live on and I die out.’ So it’s not how much money you make. It’s not how good looking you are. It’s not even how smart you are. It’s how many children you have. How much of your own DNA you pass on to tomorrow," Fisher says. "So parts of the brain are simply built to go out and find a lot of different partners, focus on just one at a time, fall in love with that individual, attach, then remain attached at least long enough to raise a child through infancy together as a team.”

This deep-seated link between love and survival explains our cultural pre-occupation with mating, for better and for worse.  

“People live for love; they sing for love; they dance for love; they compose all kinds of myths and legends for love. But they also kill for love and they die for love. So love is a tremendously powerful brain system. In fact, I’d call it an addiction - a perfectly wonderful addiction when it’s going well and a perfectly horrible addiction when it’s going poorly.”

And like any addiction, love can cloud our judgment, lending credence to the line in that old Elvis Presley song that when it comes to love, “only fools rush."

You May Like

Video Protests Continue in Ferguson, Spread to Other US Cities

Missouri officials say deployment of more than 2,000 National Guard soldiers helps curb second night of rampant arson and looting in Midwestern town More

Video Ebola, Crackdown on Illegals Hit Business in Guangzhou

Chinese city has largest community of Africans in Asia More

Video Legendary Lebanese Actress, Singer Sabah Dies at 87

Music and film diva, affectionately called 'Sabbouha' by millions of her fans, performed at Carnegie Hall in New York, Royal Albert Hall in London, Olympia in Paris, Sydney Opera House in Sydney More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Aung San Suu Kyi: Myanmar Opposition to Keep Pushing for Constitutional Changei
X
November 24, 2014 10:09 PM
Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi says she and her supporters will continue pushing to amend a constitutional clause that bars her from running for president next year. VOA's Than Lwin Htun reports from the capital Naypyitaw in this report narrated by Colin Lovett.
Video

Video Aung San Suu Kyi: Myanmar Opposition to Keep Pushing for Constitutional Change

Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi says she and her supporters will continue pushing to amend a constitutional clause that bars her from running for president next year. VOA's Than Lwin Htun reports from the capital Naypyitaw in this report narrated by Colin Lovett.
Video

Video Mali Attempts to Shut Down Ebola Transmission Chain

Senegal and Nigeria were able to stop small Ebola outbreaks by closely monitoring those who had contact with the sick person and quickly isolating anyone with symptoms. Mali is now scrambling to do the same. VOA’s Anne Look reports from Mali on what the country is doing to shut down the chain of transmission.
Video

Video Ukraine Marks Anniversary of Deadly 1930s Famine

During a commemoration for millions who died of starvation in Ukraine in the early 1930s, President Petro Poroshenko lashed out at Soviet-era totalitarianism for causing the deaths and accused today’s Russian-backed rebels in the east of using similar tactics. VOA’s Daniel Shearf reports from Kyiv.
Video

Video Hong Kong Protests at a Crossroads

New public opinion polls in Hong Kong indicate declining support for pro-democracy demonstrations after weeks of street protests. VOA’s Bill Ide in Guangzhou and Pros Laput in Hong Kong spoke with protesters and observers about whether demonstrators have been too aggressive in pushing for change.
Video

Video US Immigration Relief Imminent for Mixed-Status Families

Tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants in the Washington, D.C., area may benefit from a controversial presidential order announced this week. It's not a path to citizenship, as some activists hoped. But it will allow more immigrants who arrived as children or who have citizen children, to avoid deportation and work legally. VOA's Victoria Macchi talks with one young man who benefited from an earlier presidential order, and whose parents may now benefit after years of living in fear.
Video

Video New Skateboard Defies Gravity

A futuristic dream only a couple of decades ago, the hoverboard – a skateboard that floats above the ground - has finally been made possible. While still not ready for mass production, it promises to become a cool mode of transport... at least over some surfaces. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Falling Gas Prices Impact US Oil Extraction

With the price of oil now less than $80 a barrel, motorists throughout the United States are benefiting from gas prices below $3 a gallon. But as VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, the decreasing price of petroleum has a downside for the hydraulic fracturing industry in the United States.
Video

Video Tensions Build on Korean Peninsula Amid Military Drills

It has been another tense week on the Korean peninsula as Pyongyang threatened to again test nuclear weapons while the U.S. and South Korean forces held joint military exercises in a show of force. VOA’s Brian Padden reports from the Kunsan Air Base in South Korea.
Video

Video Mama Sarah Obama Honored at UN Women’s Entrepreneurship Day

President Barack Obama's step-grandmother is in the United States to raise money to build a $12 million school and hospital center in Kogelo, Kenya, the birthplace of the president's father, Barack Obama, Sr. She was honored for her decades of work to aid poor Kenyans at a Women's Entrepreneurship Day at the United Nations.
Video

Video Ebola Economic Toll Stirs W. Africa Food Security Concerns

The World Bank said Wednesday that it expects the economic impact of the Ebola outbreak on the sub-Saharan economy to cost somewhere betweenf $3 billion to $4 billion - well below a previously-outlined worst-case scenario of $32 billion. Some economists, however, paint a gloomier picture - warning that the disruption to regional markets and trading is considerable. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Chaos, Abuse Defy Solution in Libya

The political and security crisis in Libya is deepening, with competing governments and, according to Amnesty International, widespread human rights violations committed with impunity. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London.
Video

Video US Hosts Record 866,000 Foreign Students

Close to 900,000 international students are studying at American universities and colleges, more than ever before. About half of them come from Asia, mostly China. The United States hosts more foreign students than any other country in the world, and its foreign student population is steadily growing. Zlatica Hoke reports.

All About America

AppleAndroid