Addicted to Love
Feb 10, 2004
Ever wondered what fuels that flame when you fall in love? Brain scientists have found that it's all in your head.
Love is a Drug
When Cupid's arrow hits the heart, it starts a flood of brain chemicals that may keep us coming back for more.
Anthropologist Helen Fisher of Rutgers University says the rapture of romantic love clutches the brain much like an addiction. "I think that love is a drug. It's one of the most powerful drugs on Earth. It's turned the world. Wars have been fought for it; wars have been ended for it . . .our novels, our plays, our poems . . ." she says. "People live and die for love, so I wanted to know what happens in the brain."
Fisher teamed up with neuroscientist Lucy Brown at Albert Einstein Medical College and psychologist Arthur Aron at the State University of New York at Stony Brook to search for the brain's "love button" by studying the minds of 17 volunteers who answered an advertisement that read, "Have you just fallen madly in love?" Fisher said that she had no way of knowing from an initial meeting just how enamored each respondent was; some people were quite reserved in talking about their sweetheart, but a peek inside their brains told Fisher they were smitten.
Head over Heels
First, the love-struck subjects completed a questionnaire about how they felt when their sweetheart is nearby or having a bad day or not returning a phone call. The responses helped the research team determined the subjects' level of passion for their loved ones. Next, the volunteers viewed photographs of their loved ones and of a love-neutral person while in a functional MRI machine, which creates images of the brain. To clear their minds in between pictures, the subjects counted backwards in increments of seven from a large number such as 4,673.
The brain scans revealed that early-stage love is not so much an emotion as it is a motivational drive to win the love of someone. "The parts of the brain that lit up were not emotion centers," explains Fisher. "The most important part seems to be the reward system - the part of the brain the lets you focus your attention, gives you elation and gives you the ability to get what you want, in this case, a beloved."
A region called the ventral tegmental area, or VTA, secretes the chemical dopamine, which regulates this feel-good mechanism - also associated with drug addiction. Dopamine signals the caudate nucleus, a C-shaped region associated with the desire to win a reward. Awash with dopamine, the caudate nucleus focuses the mind's attention on the object of affection.
In fact, test subjects reported thinking about their beloveds as much as 95 percent of the day. "One of the main traits of romantic love is that you can't stop thinking about that person that you're in love with, it is obsessive," says Fisher. "Romantic love is really a need. It is a craving for emotional unity with another human being." She and her colleagues presented their research, funded in part by the National Science Foundation, to the Society for Neuroscience in 2003.
Fisher points out that the brain's response to a loved one does change over time. "Our subjects who were in longer relationships showed activity in brain regions associated with processing emotions," says Fisher. "We don't know what this means yet, but I think someday we will find that as true love progresses, brain circuits for thinking rationally about the relationship become more active."
As for new relationships, Fisher says that anyone at any age can reap mental rewards when they first fall in love. So if you find yourself hooked on that feeling, you might as well face it, you could be addicted to love.