In Dr. Helen Fisher’s highly exceptional book Why We Love, she maintained that love is one of the primordial (existing from the beginning of time) brain networks that evolved to direct mating and reproduction. She explains that love enabled our ancestors to focus their courtship attention on a single individual at a time, helping them to conserve valuable mating time and energy.
In an experiment to understand how love happens in the brain, Dr. Fisher and her team used technology for brain scanning, known as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), to record the brain activity of men and women who had recently fallen intensely in love. In the experiment, the subjects were shown a picture of their beloved, and then their brains were scanned to monitor activity in the various parts of their brains. In essence, Dr. Fisher and her team wanted to know exactly what happens in the brain whenever we fall in love.
The Reward System of the Brain
From the results of the brain scans, they found significant activity in the caudate nucleus — the reward system of the brain. Dr. Fischer writes:
The caudate helps us detect and perceive a reward, discriminate between rewards, prefer a particular reward, anticipate a reward, and expect a reward. It produces motivation to acquire a reward and plans specific movements to obtain a reward. The caudate is also associated with the acts of paying attention and learning.
Dr. Fisher noticed that the more passionate a subject was, the more activity that was shown in their caudate nucleus.
The Dopamine Sprinkling Machine
Another fascinating result from the fMRI experiment was activity in the ventral tegmental area (VTA) — a central part of the reward circuitry of the brain. The VTA is a sprinkler system made up of dopamine-making cells.
Dr. Fischer explains that as this sprinkler system sends dopamine to many brain parts, it produces focussed attention, as well as fierce energy, concentrated motivation to attain a reward, and feelings of elation, even mania — the core feelings of romantic love.
Dr. Fischer goes on to say:
No wonder lovers talk all night or walk till dawn, write extravagant poetry and self-revealing emails, cross continents or oceans to hug for just a weekend, change jobs or lifestyles, even die for one another. Drenched in chemicals that bestow focus, stamina, and vigor, and driven by the motivating engine of the brain, lovers succumb to a Herculean courting love.
From the results of the experiments, it can be said of love that it is “…at least in part, dopamine churning up the caudate nucleus and other parts of the brain’s reward system…”
The Drive to Love
From all these data from the brain scans come a different understanding of love: Love is not an emotion but a drive. A human drive, just like all other human drives like hunger or thirst.
There is a mechanism in our brains that cause us to crave for love — romantic love — from a significant other.
Dr. Fisher comes up with convincing arguments for love as a fundamental human drive. She writes:
…like drives, romantic attraction is tenacious; it is very hard to extinguish. Emotions, on the other hand, come and go; you can be happy in the morning and angry in the afternoon.
Like drives, romantic love is focussed on a specific reward, the beloved, in the same way that hunger is focussed on food. Emotions, like disgust, pin themselves to an immense variety of objects and ideas. In fact, romantic love is linked with many diverse emotions depending on whether this urge is being satisfied or frustrated.
Like drives, romantic love is not associated with any particular facial expression. All of the primary emotions—among them anger, fear, joy, surprise, and disgust—have stereotypic facial looks.
Dr. Fisher comes to the crucial conclusion that like all drives, romantic love is a need, a craving. We need food. We need water. We need warmth. And the lover feels he/she needs the beloved.
The Chemistry of Love
Before the start of the fMRI experiment, Dr. Fisher hypothesized that three chemicals were likely to be involved in the creation of love in our brains: Dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine. But from the results, only the involvement of dopamine was confirmed.
Dr. Fisher maintains that she still suspects serotonin and norepinephrine contribute to the passion of romance; they just haven’t devised the appropriate experiment to establish this yet.
Serotonin produces obsessive thinking—a central component of romantic love—while norepinephrine is closely related to dopamine and produces many of the same feelings and behaviors. So it is highly likely that these two chemicals are involved in the passion of love. Scientists are still working on experiments to understand thoroughly the chemistry of love in our brains.
[Romantic] passion emanates from the motor of the mind, the caudate nucleus; and it is fueled by at least one of nature’s most powerful stimulants, dopamine.
What Does Scientific Research into Love Mean for the Future?
Scientists have always been intrigued by the way our human bodies work; and the more they have experimented and tried to understand the body, the more they have been able to produce the appropriate remedies for our various ailments. It is quite evident that the quality of human life has improved drastically with the improvement in scientific research and experiments to understand how the human body works.
So too, the quest of scientists into how love works in our brains is geared towards understanding this mystery thoroughly and being able to provide remedies for those who have been badly affected by it. Many people go into depression, commit suicide, kill their loved ones, or commit various atrocities because of this thing called love. Most of them talk about not being able to control it.
Dr. Fisher suggests that if scientists are able to fully understand the mechanism of love in our brains, they will be able to produce the appropriate remedies to control this feeling of love. There are already modern medicines that use the little understanding that scientists have of love to combat depression caused by lost love or rejection.
It suffices to say that in the near future, scientists will be able to devise medicines that can switch on or off the love button in our heads, saving those who are spurned by love from its painful side-effects, but also giving power to those who would otherwise toy with it.
Whether all this would be possible remains a topic of contention, but with the advent of more scientific inquiry into the concept of love, will there come more understanding and control over this thing called love.