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.