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The Daily Tar Heel

This is your brain on love

What is love?

The question has been contemplated throughout the ages by authors, philosophers and Haddaway alike. But now science is entering the conversation. Through the use of functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, neuroscientists have finally begun to uncover what’s going on inside the brain of somebody in love.

Developed in the early 1990’s by Seiji Ogawa, fMRI is the method by which one measures activity in areas of the brain through increased blood flow, and correlates it with a subject’s thoughts prompted by stimuli.

Stephanie Ortigue, Ph.D., and her colleagues at Syracuse University reviewed the results of six different fMRI studies regarding love from the past decade, and they published some interesting trends in this month’s Journal of Sexual Medicine.

Subjects who scored high on the Passionate Love Scale (yes, that’s an actual scale) were asked to view photos or the names of their romantic partners. Their brain responses were then measured by fMRI, as compared to their responses to non-romantic friends or to strangers.

The studies found that thoughts of love resulted in increased activity in the subcortical dopaminergic-related brain areas. Don’t worry about the jargon: These are just areas strongly associated with euphoria and reward, and with euphoria-inducing drugs, such as cocaine.

On the other hand, the studies also found decreased activity in other parts of the brain — like the amygdala — associated with anxiety, fear, and grieving.

Does this mean that love is just a neural response to a personified drug?

It’s a little more complicated than that. Increased activity was also found in the hippocampus, involved in memory and mental associations, and in the insula, important for emotion. Additionally, Ortigue found activity in higher-order cortical areas used in social cognition, attention, and self-representation.

She told Syracuse University News, “the complex concept of love is formed by both bottom-up and top-down processes from the brain to the heart and vice versa.”

So what’s the point? These findings shed light on what most of us already know: We want love.

The increased reward and decreased anxiety present a potential neural mechanism to explain the human motivation for love.

And while love is not required for sex, studies have shown positive correlations between love and sexual function. This new knowledge could prove useful for clinicians and therapists to improve patients’ sexual health, maybe even in the form of drug therapies targeted to the implied brain areas.

These studies could also begin to explain how pharmaceutical drugs can affect love. For example, antidepressants like Prozac are already known to have sexual side effects, but Dr. Helen Fisher of Rutgers University has suggested that they could also inhibit a person’s ability to love.

We can’t really say anything for sure until more research is done, so don’t expect a new pill for lovesickness any time soon.

Nevertheless, we now know a little more about love, and, according to Ortigue, it’s “more scientific than you think.”

Perry Tsai is a second year medical student from New Orleans, LA. E-mail him at

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