Love in the Context of Science

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The month of February can be a real toll for some, as traditionally, it has so many celebratory days for love when we are still scrambling for its actual existence. From time to time, art, literature, cinema, everything has taken its turn to explain love in its own way. Now you might think that saying “love is just an end product of a bunch of chemical reactions, and nothing more” makes you the researcher for whom nothing is above science. But what have we done to draw that conclusion so far? Have we done enough?

All the heart-shaped balloons and chocolates and emojis, but the heart has so little to nothing to do with any aspects of love. The indescribable and passionate feelings of love activate areas in the brain’s cortical and subcortical regions,, that in turn give rewards in the form of desire and euphoria, simply by releasing dopamine. It is one of the three most important neuromodulators related to romantic love, oxytocin, and vasopressin being the other two. The release of dopamine is rewarding as it gives rise to a “feel good” state. Falling in love and the first stages of it might seem rose-colored, but that’s not necessarily the case always. Areas involved in this reward system are mainly in the cortex, the medial insula, anterior cingulate, and hippocampus, and in the subcortex, parts of the striatum. Alongside the activation of these regions, deactivation/inactivation of cortical zones also have a huge role to play while dissecting love. An increased dopamine level is coupled with a decrease in another neuromodulator, serotonin. A similar case of depletion of serotonin is associated very commonly with patients suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder. So if you are or someone is in this stage of obsessing over their lover, it surely can’t be helped. Even “mad in love” is an understatement, as depicted in history from time to time. An increase in activity of the romantic core areas is mirrored by a decrease in the activity of certain other zones, for example, the amygdala which is engaged during fearful situations gets deactivated and lessens the sense of fear overall. As Nietzsche wrote, “There is always some madness in love. But there is always some reason in madness”, here the reason being patterns or neurological activation and deactivation. 

Recently we have discovered an alternative way not to get disheartened for not having a Richard Linklater movie-like romance- by expressing love for our mothers and friends on Valentine’s day. Maternal love and romantic love not only share a common purpose that is keeping two individuals together for a period of their lifetime, but also they share common areas in the striatum that become activated in an experimental environment. Another study tried to identify the cortical activity of the state of romantic love with respect to friendship. What they found was even while brain imaging responses showed overlapping regions, there were very significant differences in the activity, especially in the middle insula, the anterior cingulate cortex, posterior hippocampus, and two subcortical parts in the cerebrum. Also, the amygdala portion was more active when viewing friends than love partners, which is again a very important observation as its activity correlates with fear, sadness, and aggression.

Another critical aspect of romantic love is bonding. To study the mechanisms behind the formation and maintenance of complex human relationships, better candidates were animal models. The most famous being Prairie voles, a rodent species. These little creatures form enduring monogamous relationships with their mates, and even after losing companions, they do not get attached to a new partner. Here vasopressin and oxytocin come into the picture, as numerous studies show their vital role in the bonding of prairie voles. An increase in the activity of oxytocin and vasopressin receptors and by viral-mediated gene transfer the crucial role of these receptors in shaping the social behavior of the voles were observed. Since then, the voles have received quiet fame as socially monogamous mammalians. 

The obvious contradiction here would be how one can explain the complex and intense state of mind in romantic love via animal models that are probably underdeveloped to experience higher mental functions of the human brain. But methods to study live human brains are also present, the primary technique in the mentioned studies being fluorescence magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). While it has made significant contributions towards understanding the human brain and behavior by localizing areas involved in the processing, its ability to detect task-based changes in neurochemical activities is extremely limited. But better techniques are being developed as you read this article. 

Well of course, some might argue that it is not that hard to detect love, by going back to where we started- the heart. The heart skipping a beat, AKA a raise in heartbeats and blood pressure by releasing norepinephrine, is also a potential indicator of a brain in love. 

But some modern and non-traditional studies are way more interesting and simultaneously devastating. “The 36 questions that lead to love”, The New York Times article was based on a study by Arthur Aron et al that helped to break down barriers between two strangers and result in escalating but sustained emotional intimacy by three sets of questions, each one being higher in vulnerability bar than the previous. Another study shows when subjected to unbroken mutual gaze for 2 minutes with a stranger,  increased feelings of passionate love for each other, which coincides with Emily Dickinson when she wrote, “He asked me if I was his, I made no answer of the tongue but answer of the eyes.”

In the end, there is not any conclusion on understanding love. From time to time,  via the Free love and pride movement and more recently through the pandemic, love has undoubtedly evolved to thrive and find its way around us, and it would continue to do so. Even at their worst, humans would be emotional social animals beyond Homo sapiens, maybe an emotional subspecies, and they would rely on love and art to hold on to their humanity.

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