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Unmasking the Neurobiology of Love

There is no denying that love is a natural function, as essential to us human beings as breathing, eating, and sleeping. But still, we really have no idea what it really is or how and why it occurs... until very recently.
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Romantic love has always been one of mankind's greatest mysteries -- difficult to define, yet equally difficult to miss when it happens. For centuries poets, philosophers, and more than a few stray troubadours have endlessly pondered the nature of this ever-so-ephemeral emotion, providing us with a few moderately useful nuggets of wisdom like:

  • Love is a portion of the soul itself. (Victor Hugo)
  • Love is the beauty of the soul. (St. Augustine)
  • Love is like oxygen. (The Sweet)

In case you're wondering, The Sweet was a shiny-jumpsuit-wearing 1970s British pop band. There's a great picture of them online "at the height of their career."

Silliness aside, there is no denying that love is a natural function, as essential to us human beings as breathing, eating, and sleeping. But still, we really have no idea what it really is or how and why it occurs. Certainly love is within us. We feel it, we enjoy it, and we ache both for it and from it. We chase it, we crave it, and sometimes we think we can't live without it. Nevertheless, we seem to know very little about it... until very recently.

Spoiler Alert!

If you'd prefer that love remain life's great mystery, stop reading now. Buy your sweetheart a box of chocolates, pipe some Usher into your bedroom, and skip the remainder of this article.

For the rest of you...

Love Is a State of Mind

Thanks to increasing insight into our own neurobiology, we now know unequivocally that love lives not in our hearts but in our brains. In fact, and somewhat amazingly, we even know where in the brain this exhilarating emotion resides. Essentially, when any part of the human brain is activated (by a thought, a movement, a drug, an external stimulus, etc.) we can track that activation with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans. (These scans measure, among other things, increased blood flow to activated regions of the brain.) Using this technology, monitoring and mapping things like sexual arousal and romantic love has become a relatively straightforward endeavor.

Unsurprisingly, a whole lot of scientists have decided to hop on this particular research bandwagon, producing uniformly similar results. In one study, researchers tracked the brain activity of ten women and five men who said they were "intensely in love" and had been for anywhere from one to seventeen months. The researchers monitored the brains of these individuals as they viewed photographs of their beloved, and photographs of a familiar but not beloved person. The results very clearly showed that:

  1. Intense romantic love is associated with activation of dopamine-releasing regions in the brain, such as the striatum, which is part of the brain's "pleasure center." Dopamine release is the neurochemical process that evokes within all of us strong feelings of enjoyment, satisfaction, contentment, and the like.
  2. Intense romantic love also activates regions of the brain associated with motivation to acquire a reward, primarily the insula, which "gives value" to all pleasurable, life-sustaining activities (thereby ensuring that we continue to engage in them).

Based on these findings, the research team concluded that romantic love is in essence a goal-oriented motivation state rather than a specific emotion. In other words, individuals who are "in love" feel strongly motivated to be with their beloved because being with that person causes a high level of emotional (read neurobiological) reward. So, basically, we want to be with the person we love because it feels good. No surprises there, but then scientific folks tend to like to prove things that the rest of us already know--so now we all know for certain that love exists, and that it can even be measured and analyzed. It's a real thing.

Another study took things a step further, linking sexual desire to romantic love. This research analyzed the results from twenty separate fMRI trials, each of which examined brain activity while subjects were engaged in tasks like viewing pornographic photos, photos of their significant others, and non-pornographic photos of familiar but not beloved people and/or strangers. After pooling this data, the authors of the study were able to "map" exactly where and how both sexual desire and romantic love stimulate the brain. As it turns out, sexual desire and romantic love both activate the striatum (the brain's pleasure center), yet only romantic love (and not porn use) also activates the insula (the part of the brain that organizes and makes sense of our emotions and social connections). Thus, the striatum is responsible for sexual desire and initial attraction, and the insula is responsible for transforming (giving value) to that desire, and turning it (potentially) into love. In other words, love is co-created by and "lives within" the striatum and the insula -- inside our heads.

'Love Is the Drug'

Perhaps unwittingly, Roxy Music, another (better dressed) '70s band from across the pond, was scientifically on target when it recorded its hit almost 40 years ago. The striatum and the insula, where love resides, are also the parts of the brain most directly associated with the formation and maintenance of addictive disorders. "Love is the drug, got a hook in me..." Indeed. The same process of anticipation, craving, and reward upon connection that occurs with the pursuit of intense romantic love also occurs in a very similar way with substance and behavioral addictions. As Concordia University Professor Jim Pfaus, co-author of the study linking sexual desire and love, states, "Love is actually a habit that is formed from sexual desire as that desire is rewarded. It works the same way in the brain as when people become addicted to drugs."

This is not to say that the experience of love is in any way pathological or that everyone who falls in love is "addicted" to the object of his/her affection. To qualify as an addiction we need to see not only obsession and compulsion, but also directly related and repeated negative life consequences. And thank goodness most people who fall in love don't experience those unwanted consequences. For most of us, the process of falling in love is healthy, joyful, and life affirming (not to mention necessary for the survival of our species -- read, procreation). So even though the feeling of being in love might show up in the brain looking like some form of emotional crack cocaine, in reality love doesn't necessarily lead people down the merry path of addiction the way that crack nearly always does. Rather, the early focused intensity of romantic love helps to push us forward into the more intimate challenges of a long-term meaningful relationship. In other words, the "rush" of early love encourages us to become temporarily obsessed and therefore to stay around the other person long enough to form the attachment bonds necessary for sustained love and intimacy (also securing the safety of any newborn progeny that might come out of this love). So while the beginning stages of a relationship -- the period of time when how the other person walks, talks, eats, and thinks is the subject of endless fantasies and late-night phone calls -- may look and feel like addiction, this particular neurochemical cascade is in reality a temporary, transitory state that exists to lead us into long-term intimate relationships. True love -- lasting, meaningful attachment -- is built over time in the brain, as the insula assigns increasing value to our connection with that very special someone.

So now that you know what love really is, I strongly suggest to those already in a meaningful relationship that you do something -- right this very instant -- to let your spouse or partner know how deeply you value them, because valuing another human being and caring about how they feel underlies the true nature of lasting romantic love. Science proves it! And for you singles out there, just know that the season we are now entering -- commonly known as spring -- is all about nature providing us with sensual triggers that lead toward romantic love. As the trees turn green and the blooming flowers rise out of the ground, so too does our desire to meet and mate. It's natural, meaningful, and important -- and, oh yeah, it's also all in our heads.

Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is Senior Vice President of Clinical Development with Elements Behavioral Health. He has developed clinical programs for The Ranch outside Nashville, Tennessee, Promises Treatment Centers in Malibu, and the Sexual Recovery Institute in Los Angeles. A licensed UCLA MSW graduate and personal trainee of Dr. Patrick Carnes, Mr. Weiss is author of Cruise Control: Understanding Sex Addiction in Gay Men, and co-author with Dr. Jennifer Schneider of both Untangling the Web: Sex, Porn, and Fantasy Obsession in the Internet Age and the upcoming 2013 release, Closer Together, Further Apart: The Effect of Technology and the Internet on Sex, Intimacy and Relationships, along with numerous peer-reviewed articles and chapters. An author and subject expert on the relationship between digital technology and human sexuality, Mr. Weiss has served as a media specialist for CNN, The Oprah Winfrey Network, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Today Show, among many others. He has also provided clinical multi-addiction training and behavioral health program development for the U.S. military and treatment centers throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia.