What is love, and I mean romantic love?
What is the kind of love that makes you change your life because of another person? The kind of love that makes you euphoric when you are with that special person? The kind of love the poets write about.
Love is often associated with the heart, but as a neuroscientist I’ve looked to the brain for answers. Along with my colleagues anthropologist Dr Helen Fisher and social psychologist Professor Art Aron, we’ve tried to unravel the concept of love using science.
Imagine the thrill of seeing what no one else has seen: brain activity that is there only for a new, beloved sweetheart. We used an MRI scanner to do this. We can get brain images every few milliseconds for minutes at a time. We asked people to look at a picture of their new love and think about a romantic time with them.
The controls for the experiment were a familiar but neutral person and a task to count back by 7’s from a large number like 1011. We saw activity in an amazing set of brain areas that we know process the biggest rewards we feel, and focus us on food and water. Some of these areas process the high from cocaine.
Neuroscientists call it the reward and drive system. In a way, we are addicted to the person we love. No wonder we change our lives for a lover. Nature gave us a brain system to enjoy food, water, and a potential mate. This system makes us focus on food and water and people – the person has become a goal in our lives.
Love is a natural drive, similar to the drive to pair up like all other mammals. The drive can be so strong that it gets us into trouble, but mainly it is a good thing. Having a mate is protection for you, and you may pass on your genes with this mate.
It’s interesting that the sex drive uses a different set of brain areas, a different system is active during arousal. Sex and romance are different. They often go together, but they don’t always go together. People can be aroused by a porn star, but they don’t often fall in love with them.
Your brain on love
Now imagine looking into your own brain when you are in the early stages of love. I did that! I was about to get married, six years ago. I was deeply in love. Whenever I looked at picture of my partner’s face my heart skipped a beat; I smiled involuntarily inside and outside.
Everyone asked me, “Are you sure you want to do this? What if it doesn’t show the reward and drive system effect?” I answered that I know it will. Anyone who is deeply in love knows it. You can’t stop thinking about the other person. I was right, I showed the reward-drive system effect perfectly.
It was fun to be in the scanner and concentrate on his face for 20 seconds at a time and think about our romantic times. What surprised me was an effect that we had seen in a few people who we had followed for 3 and a half years, and they were still together after the early-love brain scan. Their early love brain scan had shown a decrease in activity in brain areas that judge others. I had no idea that my brain activity associated with judging people was actively decreased when I looked at him. That was fascinating to me. I know that psychologists say it is very important in relationships to avoid criticism – so I am happy that I am able to do that in my marriage.
I gave my husband a picture of my brain effect as an anniversary present. This is the next thing we want to do: understand how relationships develop and change over time.
Who are we compatible with?
We want to know the answer to that question to keep the relationship happy and productive. We want to get along well with a long-term partner. Dr Helen Fisher has made a questionnaire to test couple compatibility based on brain physiology, and we tested it with our brain scanning techniques to show that many of the questions reflect our individual dopamine system brain activity, for example.
More importantly, if we score highly as an Explorer, which is a personality type on the dopamine scale, then we should look for another Explorer as a romantic partner. We are probably attracted to that kind of person anyway, but it’s a good idea to take her test, and Know Thyself.
Are you an Explorer, a Builder, a Director, a Negotiator?
Do Dr Helen Fisher's personality test here to find out: https://theanatomyoflove.com/relationship-quizzes/helen-fishers-personality-test/