Susan Kennedy, associate professor of psychology, is teaching her advanced neuroscience students about what goes on in the brain of someone who is head over heels. She references a study, wherein people who described themselves as being “in love” were placed under a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine, which measures blood flow to different regions of the brain.
The subjects were shown a series of pictures, including images of their partners. Two areas of the brain were consistently active when subjects saw their loves: the caudate nucleus and ventral tegmental area (VTA). The scientists who conducted the study, Helen Fisher and Lucy Brown, inferred that the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is involved in pleasure and reward, was responsible for lighting up these regions of the brain.
“These findings are not to say we’ve located love,” Kennedy says, “but we’re looking at areas of the brain that respond to stimuli. Clearly love is more complex, but the brain correlates to everything we do. Why should love be any different?”
It kind of makes you wonder how sonnets would sound if poets had an fMRI machine.
“How do I love thee? Let me see the ways,” jokes Kennedy.
The brain scans also revealed that the areas ablaze during love are the same regions that are active in cocaine users. “The feeling you get from love is the feeling you get from a powerful drug,” says Kennedy. “It can take over your life.”
The good (or bad) news is that nobody is safe from Cupid’s arrow. “We all have the hardware in our brains for addiction,” said Kennedy. “Whether it’s shopping, drugs, or love.”
Kennedy says there is way more to learn about love through neuroscience. For example, studies have shown that the longer a relationship lasts, the less these brain regions are active, sort of like developing a tolerance. And one new study suggests that break-ups activate neural pain pathways, (which lends some credibility to ’80s power ballads).
“Maybe someday,” Kennedy says, “the brain will be the symbol of love and Valentine’s Day, instead of the heart.”