This column, On the Mind, is a series about the latest in cognitive science and neuroscience-related research that applies to our everyday lives. This biweekly series is for those interested in cutting-edge findings about the practical side of habits, memories, multitasking and the human-brain interface. What are the recent studies, and what is the context? See what science says and how you can apply it to your life.
You may have heard the news before—when your brain is in love, the reactions are similar to drug addiction. A spat of stories that came out around Valentine’s Day in 2015 and 2016 talked about the neural pathways that are similar in lovers and addicts. This year, even more studies are digging into the nuance of what happens when your brain is in love, attempting to follow the exact pathways of what’s happening and even determining the differences between new love and long-term affection. As part of the expanding field of neurobiology, studies about affection and emotion are telling us more about who we are and how we operate.
Released earlier this month, a new Yale University study integrates neurobiology and neuroimaging, looking at the dopamine and oxytocin levels found in different types of bonds, such as parent-infant, peers, and romantic partners. Researchers are finding that the different attachments look different on brain scans, and they seem to be tied to rewards, motivation and compulsive behaviors.
In particular, love—and other drugs—increases dopamine in the reward system in the brain. And researchers continue to dig into the specifics. In recent months, for example, newly published studies have looked into dopamine transportation during romantic love, as well as possibilities for treating drug addiction in new ways by looking at the neural and neurochemical alterations that are similar between drug addiction and romantic love.
Scientists will continue to delve into the neurobiology of love in 2017, looking for more specific ways to track what “love” is and how it affects our minds and bodies. As brain scan technology advances, mapping the brain mechanisms will become easier, too. For this Valentine’s Day, enough research shows what behaviors to be aware of—and what we can’t exactly control.
Love is Partly Biological.
Researcher Helen Fisher began digging into the mind-body connection of love two decades ago and did the first brain scans to observe it. In fact, you may have seen her popular TED talk about how the brain reacts when it’s in love. Similar to what we know now, she saw that brain chemicals such as dopamine and norepinephrine, which are associated with pleasurable activities and excitement, also fueled the brain on love. The surprising part? Parts of our brain considered the “primitive reptilian brain” light up during early love, too, which indicates love may be basic to our biological nature.
It’s Also a Reward.
Love is such a central part of our social-craving nature that our brains evolved to see it as a reward. The brain structures that we now know are part of the “reward system”—the amygdala, the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex—receive and reinforce pleasurable input that comes from love, as well as sex, food and drugs. Richard Schwartz and Jacqueline Olds, two married neuroscientists and couples therapists at Harvard Medical School, have devoted their research to affection, addiction and biological responses.
“We know that primitive areas of the brain are involved in romantic love,” Olds said. “These areas light up on brain scans when talking about a loved one. These areas can stay lit up for a long time for some couples.”
But Like Any Reward, It Can Become Addictive.
Since the pleasure centers are the same for all rewarding behaviors, love can sometimes look like addiction. And this doesn’t only apply to humans. During a study at the University of California, San Francisco, for example, male fruit flies that were sexually rejected drank four times as much alcohol as fruit flies that mated. The reward center is the same, but there are different ways to get there.
Plus, Addictive Lust is Not the Same as Long-Lasting Love.
In recent years, brain scans showed the nuance in brain reactions to photos of loved ones, attractive strangers and pornographic images. Although the pleasure center lights up for both lust and love, only love lights up a separate area, called the insula, which assigns value to the pleasure.
“Love is actually a habit that is formed from sexual desire as desire is rewarded,” said Jim Pfaus, a Concordia University professor who, along with an international team of researchers, first mapped love and desire in the brain in 2012.
Then It Transitions.
That lust and attraction turns into attachment over time. Adrenaline and dopamine step aside for oxytocin and vasopressin to step up, creating bonds that make partners feel close and committed. Oxytocin, in particular, is released during orgasms, which is vital for feelings of pleasure and long-term happiness.
Recent studies show those chemicals aren’t the only ones, of course—more regions, hormones and reactions take place as emotions and attachments become more complex. This West Virginia University graphic in Scientific American shows the variables at stake in upcoming research. Looks like there’s more at play in our loving brains than we think.
Image: Zelah W, CC-BY
Carolyn Crist is a freelance health and science journalist for regional and national publications. She writes the Escape Artist column for Paste Travel, On the Mind column for Paste Science and Stress Test column for Paste Health.