This is Your Brain on Love

Neuroscience has a lot to say about the emotion most celebrated on February 14.

By James Ross Gardner January 25, 2012 Published in the February 2012 issue of Seattle Met

LOOK, WE’RE NOT HERE to cramp your Valentine’s Day style. We too like candlelit dinners, heart-shaped boxes, and plunking down a few dollars for greeting cards (ensuring that, for another year at least, the kids of Hallmark copywriters won’t go hungry). But when local researchers call our attention to the science behind the emotion that ostensibly fuels the holiday, we’re going to tell you about it.

Take David Barash, professor of psychology at the University of Washington. In Strange Bedfellows: The Surprising Connection Between Sex, Evolution, and Monogamy, which Barash cowrote, we’re reminded that “love is neither more nor less than a mechanism, a means to an end rather than an end in itself, a device that evolved by natural selection to facilitate breeding, the transfer of genes into the future.”

Try adding that on your Valentine’s Day cards.

Evolutionary biologists have reminded us of the reductive aspect of physical attraction for decades, but newer research takes it a step further, aligning the process of being in love with the neuro-science of addiction.

Susan Ferguson, an assistant professor of psychiatry at UW and a researcher at Seattle Children’s Research Institute, studies drug addiction—how it happens in the brain, what it does to compulsivity, why some of your coworkers huddle outside the office like conspirators, puffing on American Spirits in the rain. Ferguson cotaught a class called “Neurobiology of Love, Attraction, and Addiction” a few years back.

A study that recently piqued her interest was conducted by a British team of neuro-scientists. They showed human test subjects—which included both self-identified heterosexuals and homosexuals—photos of the faces of people with whom they said they were in love. They also showed them faces of those with whom they were romantically indifferent.

Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), the researchers found that only the romantic interests ignited “regions of the brain that are associated with ‘reward’—the dopamine system, basal ganglia,” Ferguson says. “In other words, the brain circuits involved in addiction became activated only when they were shown the people that they loved.”

Evolutionary biologists have reminded us of the reductive aspect of physical attraction for decades, but newer research aligns the process of being in love with the neuroscience of addiction.

Both Ferguson and Barash talk about the prairie vole, a type of field mouse that is, in terms of love, nature’s homebody. Voles don’t swing, they mate for life, unlike nearly every other mammal. “The pair bonding in those animals,” adds Ferguson, “has been tied to oxytocin, which has been identified with mother-infant bonding, and also dopamine, which is sort of the addiction neurotransmitter.”

Writes Barash, “People who describe themselves as ‘madly in love’ show particular activation in the same brain regions that are stimulated by cocaine.”

So love is a drug?

Not quite, says Ferguson. “Love is complicated”—we know!—“because it shares neural circuits with addiction, and the normal function of that circuit is to help with love, but addiction sort of takes over that circuit. But as a general rule, it’s a stretch when people say, ‘Oh I’m so in love, I’m addicted to this person’ or ‘You’re addicted to love’ ”—paging Robert Palmer—“I think that’s exaggerating.”

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