This Is Your Brain On Love

Kayt Sukel, renowned author and journalist, looks at what happens to your brain when you fall in love and how we can explain it.

BY THE ROAM TEAM 5 MIN READ

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Falling in love is not only an emotional experience, but a profound physical one as well.

Think about the last time you were deep in the throes of love. You may have experienced sweaty palms, an accelerated heart rate, weakness in the knees, or butterflies in the stomach whenever you interacted with that particular person (or even just thought about doing so.

Your mood and cognition were likely affected, too. You might have been buoyed with happiness when with them – but blue and irritable when apart. You might have had some anxiety (‘do they feel the same way I do?’) or felt driven to distraction. And it’s possible you might have made some poor decisions in those early days, like skipping work, dissing friends, or going over budget just in hopes of getting in more face time with your boo.

There’s no doubt about it: love’s symptoms are both powerful and dramatic. And that’s because, as you fall in love, your brain is going through some fairly significant changes. 

Your love is my drug

More than 20 years ago, Semir Zeki, a neuroscientist at University College London, decided to scan the brains of people who reported to be passionately in love. He showed them photos of their beloved, as well as three friends who shared the same sex. When he compared the activation patterns between lovers and friends, they found that romantic love activated areas of the brain involved with emotion, reward, and memory – a unique pattern, Zeki argued, that closely resembled the brain after a hit of cocaine. Suddenly the title of the film ‘Love and Other Drugs’ makes a lot of sense. 

Distinct, yet overlapping, systems

When Helen Fisher, an evolutionary anthropologist at Rutgers, decided to look at the brain in love, she considered the fact that humans, as a species, experience different types of love – romantic, familial or platonic (which she refers to as attachment), and good, old-fashioned lust. She hypothesized that romantic love, much like hunger, thirst, or sex, was not an emotion but a physical drive. As such, there should be a distinct pattern of activity for romantic love that you wouldn’t see with other types. Her pioneering work has more than born that out. Like Zeki, Fisher and colleagues found that, after viewing photos of the person they claimed to be in love with, specific areas like the basal ganglia (called the right ventral tegmental area and the right caudate nucleus) were activated. These are parts of what’s known as the “reptilian brain” – and a major player in the brain’s reward system. 

The researchers also discovered distinct patterns of activity for lust (an area long known to be involved with sexual behaviors, the hypothalamus) and attachment (another part of the basal ganglia called the ventral pallidum). Fisher argues having three distinct systems for love is an evolutionary advantage – not only does it motivate us to keep getting busy to propagate the species, but attachment and romantic love help us stay safter and stick around long enough to ensure the well-being of our offspring.

What's missing?

It’s also important to note, however, what brain areas lack activity in studies of romantic love. Both Zeki and Fisher noted areas of deactivation, or decreased function, during their tasks. These included the frontal lobe, which is responsible for judgment and decision-making. As the binge-worthy Netflix programme shows, love is blind. And any of us who have been in thrall with the wrong person knows that sometimes it can take a while to catch on and walk away.

Love is complicated...and so is brain science.

These studies have highlighted three distinct, yet overlapping love systems, which explain why we end up in so many love-related conundrums. (It also explains the majority of soap opera storylines). Love is not simple, nor are the brain networks that are associated our experience of it. Scientists remain hard at work trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together. In the meantime, you can take some solace in the fact that love is not making you crazy. Your brain has evolved in this way to help you better connect with others – and, as a consequence, keep the species alive and kicking.

By Kayt Sukel
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