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If there’s one part of the human anatomy that has confounded the most gifted of minds throughout history, it’s the brain. Unravelling the secrets locked away within our cerebral recesses has represented a mighty task. Yet with the advent of neuroscience, and the technology at its disposal, we now find ourselves in an unprecedented position to start demystifying our grey matter. Here we chat to the eminent anthropologist Helen Fisher and learn how brain science is being used to explain another awe-inspiring corporeal condition; the act of falling in love.
Brain histories and the science of falling in love
Ever since the dawn of recorded history, successive civilisations have been completely fascinated with the 3lb of cerebral matter housed between our ears. Indeed, by today’s standards some of our ancestors’ ideas on what purpose the brain fulfilled err on the absurd.
Take the Grecian philosopher Aristotle for example. Without muddying the ancient thinker’s herculean intellect, his understanding of the brain was a bit off par. In Aristotle’s opinion, the brain acted as vent for the heat created by the heart, much like a car radiator works.
Centuries later, mathematician Rene Descartes proposed an entirely new way of conceptualizing the human brain. For the dualistically-inclined Frenchman, our central nervous system acted like a hydraulic machine, channeling information to and from the brain. However, Descartes reasoned that the seat of our intelligence and emotionality, the “mind”, existed outside of our bodies and communicated with our brain by way of the pineal gland.
Indeed, those are just two examples of where exceptionally smart people have gotten it wrong. But what makes us so certain that our current theories are any better? The simple answer to that question is technology. The advances we’ve made in medical imaging since the second half of the 20th century are like something out of a sci-fi novel.
With neuroscience promising to decipher the most intricate aspects of human nature, it is little wonder how it has come to be one of the most popularised branches of science. Everywhere you look, we’re turning to the brain for clues. There’s very little nowadays that hasn’t had the “neuro” prefix placed in front of it. Whether it’s the sentencing of criminals through neurolaw or searching out the bases of spirituality through neurotheology, the neuroscientific gaze appears to be limitless.
Even that butterfly-inducing experience more commonly known as falling in love has gone under the scanner. Before you jump to conclusions, a great deal of effort has gone into exploring the neural correlates of romantic love, and the results are most definitely convincing.
An expert’s view
If you’re searching for an explanation of the synaptic sources of romantic love, there’s probably no one better qualified to comment than Helen Fisher. Trained as a biological anthropologist, Fisher is regarded as one of the world’s leading experts when it comes to the brain ‘in-love’. Currently acting as a senior research fellow at Indiana’s prestigious Kinsey Institute, she’s also published a slew of academic texts and held a handful of engaging (and well-viewed) TED talks.
According to Fisher, her interest in the biology of falling in love was piqued at young age. “When I was growing up, long before I knew there was a nature/nurture controversy, I knew that there was biology in behaviour because I was a twin,” she says.
A few years on, her latent curiosity was crystallised at graduate school: “I thought to myself that if there’s any part of human behaviour rooted in biology it would be our reproductive strategies. Things like the way we court and how we find a mate, who we choose to marry and how long our relationships last”.
Love quickly became the locus of Fisher’s attention, particularly as it is pretty central (albeit in different degrees) to the aforementioned behaviours. “All over the world people love, they pine for love, they live for love, they kill for love, and they die for love” she says. Demystifying the evolutionary bases behind such a powerful part of human life thus became Fisher’s express objective.
It’s pretty safe to wager that most of the world’s adult population has at some point gone head over heels and experienced what it’s like to fall in love with someone. And much like the chronicles of brain science, love is also something that’s been discussed down the ages. This is a point Fisher is all too aware of. “The amount of myths, poems and legends about love around the globe is astronomical,” says Fisher, “and until very recently people still regarded romantic love as part of the supernatural.”
The veil of mystic surrounding love was something Fisher had to confront early on, especially as people were quick to query the American’s work. “It absolutely staggered me that people would come up and say to me ‘why do you want to study love, it’s supposed to be magic and you’re ruining it by understanding it,” she says.
But with the advent of computerised tomography (CT) scanning and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), Fisher was handed a game changer. “When brain scanning came along I thought to myself ‘well then, here’s a great opportunity’,” she recalls. Not one to rest on her laurels, Fisher seized the chance this advance yielded her: “I and my colleagues were the first people in the world to use this technology to study love.”
Since that crucial decision, Fisher, along with social psychologist Arthur Aron and neuroscientist Lucy Brown, have put scores of people into fMRI scanners to get to the bottom of why we fall in love. One of the most significant studies was the subject of a seminal paper the trio published in 20051. After imaging the brains of 17 young adults who reported being intensely ‘in love’, Fisher and her collaborators made a major breakthrough.
“What we found was brain activity in a region linked with drive, focus, motivation and craving,” she says. The team’s scans revealed a tiny area of the brain called the ventral tegmental area (or VTA for short) lighting up when the study’s participants were shown a photo of their beloved. “Romantic love emanates from the VTA, a little factory that makes dopamine and sends it to many of the brain’s regions,” she says, “what’s more, the VTA also sits right next to factories that orchestrate thirst and hunger”. In short, falling in love is intertwined with a part of the brain that’s heavily involved in the reward system.
This discovery enabled Fisher to hypothesise that the powerful emotions associated with falling in love are as central to our existence as having an appetite is. “It became clear to me that romantic love is a drive that evolved over millions of years to initiate human pair bonding and mating so as to ensure your DNA survives into the next generation”.
Love is the drug
Way back in the mid-70s, Roxy Music’s swarthy frontman Bryan Ferry famously crooned that ‘love is the drug’ that had a hook on him. Although the British band’s new wave classic was (and still is) a timeless hit, the track’s tongue-in-cheek lyrical message has a fair bit of relevance to Fisher and co.’s revelations.
As it happens, the dopamine-charged VTA is central to cognition. However, it’s also a part of the brain that’s implicated in drug addiction and a plethora of psychiatric disorders. This does go some way to explain how falling in love can mimic both obsessive and compulsive behaviours. “We can do some pretty nutty things when we’re madly in love,” says Fisher, “but I think these findings help people realise that they’re not going crazy, they’re in fact feeling a very ancient and primitive drive that evolved for important reproductive purposes.”
When asked whether the neural pathway behind falling in love may have laid the foundation for addictions to things like alcohol and nicotine, Fisher isn’t convinced. “The system evolved for very important Darwinian reasons of survival and reproduction,” she adds, “these substances just hijack the system and use it for different purposes.”
So what has the future got in store for our love-addled brains? Just like CT and fMRI revolutionised the way we can learn about our bodies, Fisher believes that technology is modifying the way we meet prospective partners. “Today courtship is changing,” says Fisher, “we’re meeting more and more people on the internet, and that’ll continue.”
Does that mean online dating apps effectively restructuring our neural circuitry? Fisher doesn’t think so: “The environment is always going to alter some aspect of how we express our love,” she says, “but the basic brain circuitry will not change. It probably hasn’t changed for 4 million years, and if we live on as species, it will be with us for another 4 million.”
There you have it. For readers of a more cynical disposition, the familiar maxim of nothing being sacred anymore might ring true. Nevertheless, the work of scientists like Fisher is contributing to a much more comprehensive picture of who we are and why we fall in love. So the next time you reckon you’re being swept away by a fairytale romance, try and use your brain!