Biology: Your Brain In Love

What goes on in your head when you fall madly in love? One scientist decided to find out. In an exclusive book excerpt, she lays bare the physiology of passion

  • Martin Parr / Magnum

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    The Dopamine Mother Lode
    Another striking result from our FMRI experiment concerned activity in the ventral tegmental area (VTA), a central part of the reward circuitry of the brain. This result was what I was looking for. As you know, I had hypothesized that romantic love is associated with elevated levels of dopamine or norepinephrine. The VTA is a mother lode for dopamine-making cells. With their tentacle-like axons, these nerve cells distribute dopamine to many brain regions, including the caudate nucleus. And as this sprinkler system sends dopamine to various parts of the brain, it produces focused attention as well as fierce energy, concentrated motivation to attain a reward, and feelings of elation — even mania — the core feelings of romantic love.

    No wonder lovers talk all night or walk till dawn, write extravagant poetry and self-revealing e-mails, cross continents or oceans to hug for just a weekend, change jobs or lifestyles, even die for one another. Drenched in chemicals that bestow focus, stamina and vigor, and driven by the motivating engine of the brain, lovers succumb to a Herculean courting urge.

    The Drive to Love
    All these data had a definite effect on me — they changed my understanding of romantic love. For many years I had regarded this wonderful experience as a constellation of related emotions that ranged from elation to despair. But psychologists distinguish between emotions and motivations — brain systems oriented around planning and pursuit of a specific want or need. And our colleague Art Aron was wedded to the idea that romantic love was not an emotion but a motivation system designed to enable suitors to build and maintain an intimate relationship with a preferred mating partner.

    Indeed, because of Aron's dedication to this idea, we had begun our brain-scanning project with two hypotheses: my hypothesis that romantic love is associated with dopamine and other closely related neurotransmitters in the brain, and Aron's theory that romantic love is primarily a motivation system rather than an emotion.

    As it turns out, our results suggest that both hypotheses are correct. Romantic love does seem to be associated with dopamine. And because this passion emanates from the caudate nucleus, motivation and goal-oriented behaviors are involved.

    Love's Complex Chemistry
    We are coming to some understanding of the drive to love — and what an elegant design it is! This passion emanates from the motor of the mind, the caudate nucleus, and it is fueled by at least one of nature's most powerful stimulants, dopamine. When passion is returned, the brain tacks on positive emotions, such as elation and hope. And all the while, regions of the prefrontal cortex monitor the pursuit — planning tactics, calculating gains and losses, and registering one's progress toward the goal: emotional, physical, even spiritual union with the beloved. Nature has produced a powerful mechanism to focus our precious courtship energy on a special other — an evolutionary miracle designed to produce more humans.

    "The brain is wider than the sky," wrote Emily Dickinson. Indeed, this 3-lb. blob can generate a need so intense that all the world has sung of it. And to make our lives even more complex, romantic passion is intricately enmeshed with two other basic mating drives, the sex drive and the urge to build a deep attachment to a romantic partner. Ah, the web of love. How these forces feed the flame of life.

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