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He loves me! He loves me not…

8 Dec, 2011

In the latest of our shortlisted entries to the 2011 Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize, Katie Pratt looks at the dizzying highs and terrifying lows that only love can bring.

So you thought you and your partner had chemistry? Well that’s nothing compared to the chemistry going on in your brain. But what happens if your one‐and‐only decides to leave you? Neurological chaos, that’s what.

I’m going to make the bold assumption that you have been in love. You’ve felt that initial obsession and the warm fuzziness of attachment and dependence that follows. If I might be so brazen, I’m also going to assume you’ve had your heart broken. Life as you knew it came to an end. You probably felt desperate and perhaps even found yourself doing irrational things – standing outside in the rain, holding a boombox blasting the most romantic song you could think of, in order to win your beloved back.

OK, that was John Cusack in the movie Say Anything, not you.

Either way, I’m sure you understand the fundamentals of falling in and out of love. There’s the early, lustful stage, which perhaps evolved to allow us to cast a wide net to find a suitable mate. Then there’s the long‐term bond, which may have arisen to ensure a couple could tolerate one another long enough to raise their offspring. While we might never fully grasp the ‘why’ of love, modern scientific methods are getting closer to understanding the ‘how’.

Love has driven much of biological anthropologist Helen Fisher’s research into human behavior. Over the past few decades at Rutgers University in New Jersey, Fisher has studied adultery, sexuality and monogamy. More recently, she is trying to understand how regions of the brain control the behaviours associated with being in love.

In order to look at how a brain in love functions, Fisher and her team used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). This technique allowed them to take snapshots of the brain while volunteers were shown photographs of their lover. When looking at the brains of men or women who were happily in love, Fisher found that specific regions associated with goal‐oriented behaviours lit up. This suggested to her that love is not an emotion but a motivation. Being in love motivates you to be with your lover. This is the biological basis of falling madly in love (in a nutshell).

At a more detailed level, it turns out that these activated areas are rich in neurons that produce the brain chemical dopamine. Much like serotonin or adrenaline, dopamine is a neurotransmitter involved in sending signals from one neuron to another. These chemicals tend to be specific in what they do, and dopamine is known to play a major role in the brain’s ability to experience pleasure. It is also associated with addiction. For example, the highly addictive drug cocaine elicits its effect by increasing dopamine levels in the brain. One behavioural characteristic of addiction is the need, or craving, for more of whatever made you feel so great in the first place. It is perhaps not surprising therefore that our drive to fall in love, and stay in love, with one person hijacks this system of goal‐oriented pleasure.

But what happens if you’re dumped? Simplistically, what was once a constructive addiction becomes a destructive one. Some jilted lovers have even been driven to the point of homicide or suicide, a sign that something is going seriously wrong in their brains. Last year, Fisher decided to try and figure this out using her fMRI based approach.

Sure enough, areas of the brain previously associated with cocaine cravings lit up in her subjects’ brains. However, the study also found that there is more to heartbreak than the effects of going ‘cold turkey’. When shown a picture of their ex, the participants’ brains showed activity in regions associated with emotions such as sadness and depression. They were grieving.

So if you combine grief, which often manifests as denial, anger or protest, with a sudden withdrawal of the object of one’s addiction – I mean, affection – the brain goes into overdrive. It is little wonder that being dumped has a profound impact on your productivity or sleeping patterns, as your neural circuitry is going bananas.

But what does this all mean for humanity? Well, the scientist side of me is screaming, “Understanding something makes it seem less horrifying.” The rest of my brain is more sympathetic. Perhaps research like this, which combines the study of erratic human behaviour with hard scientific data on brain function, will help us design treatments for those debilitated by a broken heart. Or maybe it will help those of us who are head‐over‐heels in love to focus and get their entries for this competition finished more than 24 hours before the deadline.

Katie Pratt

This is an edited version of Katie’s original essay. Views expressed are the author’s own.

Find out more about the Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize in association with the Guardian and the Observer and read our ‘How I write about science‘ series of tips for aspiring science writers.

Over the coming months, we’ll be publishing the shortlisted essays in this year’s inaugural competition

Image Credit: Jenn and Tony Bot on Flickr
One Comment leave one →
  1. 8 Dec, 2011 11:43 am

    Wonderful explanation of something often hard to explain. I love the idea of this blog! There needs to be a lot more communication between the scientific and non-scientific community – too often things are simplified to the point that vitals are missed.

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