People have long believed that romantic love is part of the supernatural, a special form of magic that has otherworldly power. They don’t believe that fear is part of the supernatural, or anger or depression. Yet, many maintain love’s passion is an ethereal force that engulfs the mind.
However, as philosopher John Dewey wrote, “Mind is what the brain does.” Every time you feel, think or do anything, the brain is working--generating your thoughts, emotions and actions.
Still, why study the brain systems of romantic love? What can be gained from this expensive, difficult endeavor?
Lucy, as a neuroscientist, has been motivated, in part, by her belief that studying this natural euphoria could provide deeper understand of the brain’s reward systems—the primary neural circuits for experiencing pleasure, wanting, energy, focus and motivation. We knew that these neural highways produce the artificial “high” we get from drugs. But no one had studied a natural “high.” Indeed, after seeing our results, Lucy has proposed that cocaine, nicotine and other street drugs hitchhike on these primitive brain circuits, brain regions that initially evolved to seek love and many other life-sustaining essentials, including food and water.
Helen has long been interested in addiction from a slightly different angle. Romantic love not only causes ecstatic joy, but also intense sorrow; it wreaks havoc with our lives. In one study of college students, 93% reported that they had been dumped by someone they adored. And stalking, suicide, homicide and other crimes of passion are common everywhere in the world. So she hypothesized that romantic love is a profound addition—a glorious addiction when one’s love is returned; a devastating and dangerous addiction when love is spurned. She, too, wanted to know whether romantic love actually commandeers some of the same brain circuits as “street” drugs.
We also both had clearly in mind the profound consequence of this passion: children. If you bear babies that live to bear more babies, you have passed your DNA on toward eternity. You have survived. So love matters. Why not understand the neural liquor that drives this primordial process of reproduction: intense romantic love?
Of course, healthy romantic partnerships don’t always mean babies. But they do mean mutual protection and support, which is also important for survival.
Moreover, as scientists from different disciplines, we hope our brain studies can help meld the findings of psychology, anthropology and biology—paving the way for the integration of these vastly different and vital scientific fields. When we started, Lucy, the neuroscientist, was surprised and delighted to learn from Helen that anthropologists had shown romance was present in all cultures studied. It is cross-cultural. Also, psychologists had established a Passionate Love Scale. Art Aron showed us how we could quantify feelings and attitudes. Previous science had established a rationale, psychological tools and technology for the study of love’s brain systems.
Most important, however, we both believe that if we can identify the brain systems associated with this potent and universal human sensation, romantic love, we might be able to pioneer methods to help rejected men and women overcome depression (and avoid violence) and enable all of us to make more vibrant, stable, happy partnerships.NEXT