How Do We Study Love?

Caught Thinking

The science of “brain mapping” Brain scanning isn’t simple.  It’s not like taking a photograph of your beloved in the park and instantly seeing their glowing face on your iPhone.  There are more cells in the brain than stars in the Milky Way.  Over 100 billion of them.  And the scanner can collect data on… Read more »

Localization of Function

Broca’s Area (red spot) was first described in 1861 by Paul Broca, a French physician and anthropologist.   Scientists used to rely on chance opportunities to map brain function.  Most studies were on patients with brain lesions that had altered their cognitive abilities and/or behavior. The first brain region to be “mapped” was the primary… Read more »

fMRI: A Few Cardinal Rules

There are a few cardinal rules of brain scanning, using fMRI.  Foremost, because the scanner is a strong magnet that can draw in a piece of metal from across a room, damaging the machine and anything in it’s path (including people), no one is allowed to enter the scanning room with nickels, dimes or quarters… Read more »

Catching The Flow: Studying Love

The human brain is a busy place.  It’s doing a zillion things, even when you sleep.  To distinguish the blood flow changes associated with romantic love from this cacophony of other neural activities, scientists have to plan carefully. We needed to establish our stimulus, the mechanism we would use to trigger feelings of intense romantic… Read more »

Experimental Design

The Love-O-Meter.   Even before we put lovers into the scanner, we designed a lab experiment to measure the impact of several stimuli likely to elicit romantic craving.  We jokingly called our device for this purpose the Love-O-Meter. We asked students from Stony Brook University who were madly in love to come into the lab… Read more »

Positive Stimulus

Please meet Derrick and Diana.  We will follow them as they go through each step of our first brain scanning experiment.  They had been “in love” for the past 6 months. This is the photo (the Positive stimulus) of Derrick that Diana brought into the lab; she planned to look at this picture to trigger… Read more »

Neutral Stimulus

When we first thought of doing this experiment, someone suggested using the famous painting of George Washington.  Do you think this would be a good control?

Familiar Neutral

We decided George Washington was not a good control.  We needed a control for familiarity of a living person.  The brain might not respond just to faces, but to familiarity of known people.  It certainly would respond to memories about the person. Our experiment design (the protocol) was taking shape. Participants were asked to provide… Read more »

The Countback Task

Love is tenacious.  When you are in love you can’t stop thinking about him or her; it’s almost impossible to control these obsessive thoughts.  So feelings of romantic passion were likely to “carry over,” contaminating one’s response to the Familiar Neutral.   How to stop this carry-over effect? As in our experiment with the Love-O-Meter, we… Read more »

Repetition of the Stimuli

We had found our experimental design.  Starting either with the Positive Stimulus or the Familiar Neutral, each participant would gaze at the photo for 20 seconds, then count backwards, then look at the other photo, then count backwards again.  This rotation would be repeated 6 times to be sure the responses were reliable.  And the… Read more »

Who Participated in the First Experiment?

“Have you just fallen madly in love?”  This headed the flyer we circulated on several college campuses to find participants for our first experiment. Most participants were college students from the State University of New York, Stony Brook and Rutgers University in New Jersey. They were volunteers eager to help science and understand what was… Read more »

Pre-Scan Interviews

Of course we had to be sure our participants were madly in love, so they got a Pre-Scan Interview from Helen Fisher. Helen asked them about the details of the relationship:  where they met their partner, how long the relationship had lasted, how they feel about the relationship, and what they did with their partner… Read more »

The Passionate Love Scale

Participants also took a questionnaire called the Passionate Love Scale.  They all scored very highly on this self-report questionnaire. The questionnaire has been used by psychologists since 1986 to gauge a person’s intensity and experience of love. Here are three of the fifteen questions.  You rate how true they are for you on a scale… Read more »

Pre-Scan Instructions

  Then Helen prepared each participant for their tasks while in the scanner.  Most important, the participant was instructed to think about specific, highly romantic times they had shared with their beloved.   Equally important: they must avoid any sexual thoughts.  We were studying romantic love; we didn’t wish to invite the sex drive to the… Read more »

Post-Scan Interview

What were the participants really thinking while they were in the scanner? Helen conducted a post scan interview with each participant moments after she removed them from the scanner. What specific events did they think about as they gazed at the photo of their beloved?  What were their thoughts as they peered at the Familiar… Read more »

Data Analysis

All of Diana’s data is on the disk Lucy is holding. The data analysis is computer-intensive.   There is a publicly available program called Statistical Parametric Mapping (SPM8) that is updated every few years by a group of neuroscientists and statisticians at University College London ( First, we look to see if the participants moved in… Read more »

The Images

The scanning produces two types of images: 1) an anatomical image that shows the brain structure, 2) a functional image that shows the blood flow. Placing the functional images (collected as the participant is “functioning” or doing something) on top of the anatomical images, Lucy can pinpoint those areas of the brain that are working…. Read more »

The Last Step

Not all brains are the same shape or size, however.  So Lucy’s final step at the computer is to align the functional data of all participant together and place these composite results on a template of a standard brain.  The computer changes the shape of each participant’s brain to fit the template, using exceptionally sophisticated… Read more »

After The Computer Crunches The Numbers

Then the computer crunches the numbers and does the statistics and shows us images like this. The blobs of color show the areas specifically activated by all lovers.  The graph shows the changes in blood flow during the course of the 20 seconds that these lovers looked at their amours. (For more, go to Results.)  … Read more »