This Is Your Brain on Love
By Susan Brink
Los Angeles Times, July 30, 2007
Edited by Andy Ross
Science is just beginning to parse the inner workings of the brain in love,
examining the fall from a medley of perspectives: neural systems, chemical
messengers, and the biology of reward.
In 2000, two London scientists
selected 70 people, all in the early sizzle of love, and rolled them into a
functional magnetic resonance imaging scanner, or fMRI. The images they got
are thought to be science's first pictures of the brain in love. The
pictures showed that romantic love is a lot like addiction to alcohol or
The dance that leads, if we're lucky, to a stable commitment
moves through several key steps. First comes initial attraction, the spark.
Next comes the wild, dizzying infatuation of romance. The brain uses its
chemical arsenal to focus our attention on one person, forsaking all others.
The passion lasts at least for a few months, two to four years tops,
says relationship researcher Arthur Aron, psychologist at the State
University of New York at Stony Brook. As it fades, something more stable
takes over: the steady pair-bonding of what's called companionate love.
For years, scientists have known that attraction is more likely to
happen when people are aroused. "People are more likely to feel aroused in a
scary setting," Aron says. "It's pretty simple. You're feeling
physiologically aroused, and it's ambiguous why. Then you see an attractive
person, and you think, Oh, that's why."
Key to this state of seeing a
person as a soul mate instead of a one-night stand is the limbic system,
nestled deep within the brain between the neocortex and the reptilian brain.
Altered levels of dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin wield their
But people in the early throes of passionate love can
think of little else. They describe sleeplessness, loss of appetite, and
feelings of euphoria. Brain areas governing reward, craving, obsession,
recklessness, and habit all play their part.
In an experiment
published in 2006, Helen Fisher, an evolutionary anthropologist at Rutgers
University who studies human attraction, found 17 people who were in
relationships for an average of seven months. She put these lovesick,
enraptured people in an fMRI to see what areas of their brains got active
when they saw a photograph of their beloved ones.
"We found some
remarkable things," she said. "We saw activity in the ventral tegmental area
and other regions of the brain's reward system associated with motivation,
elation and focused attention." It's the same part of the brain that
presumably is active when a smoker reaches for a cigarette or when gamblers
think they're going to win the lottery.
Lucy Brown, professor of
neuroscience at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, has also taken fMRI
images of people in the early days of a new love. In a study reported in
2005, she too found key activity in the ventral tegmental area. "That's the
area that's also active when a cocaine addict gets an IV injection of
cocaine," Brown says. Your ventral tegmental area uses chemical messengers
such as dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin to send signals racing to a part of
the brain called the nucleus accumbens with the good news, telling it to
Biologically, the cravings and pleasure unleashed are
as strong as any drug. Surely such a goal is worth taking risks for, and
other alterations in the brain help ensure that the lovelorn will do just
that. Certain regions, scientists have found, are being deactivated, such as
within the amygdala, associated with fear.
Sooner or later, excited
brain messages reach the caudate nucleus, a dopamine-rich area where
unconscious habits and skills are stored. The attraction signal turns the
love object into a habit, and then an obsession. According to a 1999 study
in the journal Psychological Medicine, people newly in love have serotonin
levels 40% lower than normal people do, just like people with
The front brain certainly gets
involved as it ponders all of life's experiences and past mistakes, but not
just the front brain. The nucleus accumbens holds memories. Its quest for
reward is influenced by childhood experiences, friends, or previous
Love's rush can happen at any age, whether people are 20 or
70, says Elaine Hatfield, psychology professor at the University of Hawaii
and relationship researcher. But the older people get, the more memories
they harbor of joy and trust, rejection and disappointment. And the front
brain probably gets a greater say.
AR (2007) Ah, sweet science!
As love object, it beats the inconstant female of the species any day. Pity
about its utter failure on the more urgent matter of slaking raw lust.