MRIs are shedding light on romance. Helen Fisher has studied love for more than 30 years. With a team at Rutgers, she scanned the brains of individuals in different phases of relationships and found surprising results.
Love shines brightest not in those head over heels but in the recently dumped. Three brain regions activate; romantic love, risk-taking and individual attachment. Pain from losing a partner is a survival instinct not for the individual, but for species perpetuation. A lyric by the Doors describes the feeling: “Don’t you love her as she’s walking out the door.”
Speaking of Jim Morrison, cocaine affects one of the same regions as romance. Fisher describes the dwelling of love as “way below your cognitive thinking process. It’s below your emotions. It’s part of what we call the reptilian core of the brain, associated with wanting, with motivation, with focus and with craving.” Love is an addiction, including tolerance, withdrawal and relapse.
We’re all hooked. College students were asked if they’ve been rejected by someone they love or if they’ve rejected someone who loves them. Nearly 95 percent said yes to both. As Fisher says, “Almost nobody gets out of love alive.”
There is hope. The drive for a romantic mate focuses energy to raise offspring as a team and increase the chance of survival. Love highlights strengths and downplays weaknesses in a spouse. A truck driver once poetically explained, “The world had a new center, and that center was Mary Anne.”
Romance is not wasted on the young. Art Aron thought to scan individuals in long-term relationships claiming to be in love. Fisher reveals, “They’re not lying. The brain areas associated with intense romantic love still become active 25 years later.”
Mystery remains. For example, why — in a room of people with similar looks, intelligence and beliefs — can one stranger stand out? Helen Fisher’s current research uses dating website Chemistry.com to study what makes two brain systems complementary.
Until more is revealed, take a hint from science. Maintain some mystery and do something new with someone special — both release dopamine, a gateway drug vital to triggering love.
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