Love and Brains

Wikipedia goes into a very long definition of love; it has a series of topics revolving around the main one.  Some of these overlap with the other kinds of love, but since this is Valentine’s Day, I am focusing on the love generally related to dating. In anthropologist Helen Fisher‘s book, Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love, she breaks love down to three overlapping stages. These are lust (I am tossing an additional link for libido in here for your reading pleasure),  attraction, and attachment. Most of my research after browsing the main topic included the chemical aspects of interpersonal love.  Based on the neuroscience studies the list of chemicals involved in love include: nerve growth factor, testosterone, estrogen, dopamine, norepinephrine, serotonin, oxytocin, and vasopressin.

The Biology of Love - Calamities of Nature by Tony Piro

The Biology of Love - Calamities of Nature by Tony Piro

If recent neuroscience research into love is any indication, the biologist above is ready to talk commitment. “Couples who have been together for several years show increased brain activity associated with (the hormones, oxytocin and vasopressin) these chemicals, when they look at pictures of their partner. Oxytocin is produced when couples have sex and touch, kiss and massage each other – the hormone makes us more trusting, helps overcome “social fear” and is important for bonding.” (Pickrell, John, Middleton, Lucy, and Anderson, Alun, “Introduction: Love.” New Scientist (Online). September 2006. 04 . Web. February 2011. 14.0)

Crazy In Love:

In the brain, romantic love shows similarities to going mildly insane or suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder. Studies show that when you first fall in love, serotonin levels plummet and the brain’s reward centres are flooded with dopamine. This gives a high similar to an addictive drug, creating powerful links in our minds between pleasure and the object of our affection, and meaning we crave the hit of our beloved again and again.

Lust is driven by sex hormones such as testosterone, which can go off-kilter too. As can levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and the amphetamine-like chemical phenylethlyamine, increasing excitement. (Pickrell, Middleton, and Anderson)

Love and Hearts:

I did not want to leave the heart out on Valentine’s Day.

“Does the heart fall in love, or the brain?”

“That’s a tricky question always,” says Ortigue [assistant professor of psychology and an adjunct assistant professor of neurology, both in The College of Arts and Sciences at Syracuse University]. “I would say the brain, but the heart is also related because the complex concept of love is formed by both bottom-up and top-down processes from the brain to the heart and vice versa. For instance, activation in some parts of the brain can generate stimulations to the heart, butterflies in the stomach. Some symptoms we sometimes feel as a manifestation of the heart may sometimes be coming from the brain.”

Love and Pain:

Researchers in the pain center at Stanford University Medical Center recruited a group of students in the first nine months of a relationship to test the pain relieving effects of love when dealing with mild pain stimulus. The students brought pictures of their significant other and an attractive acquaintance. Their brains were scanned as the pictures were alternated while a computer-controlled thermal stimulator placed in the palm of their hand was heated to cause mild pain. Word association tasks were included to test a non-romantic distraction against the pictures.

Results showed that both love and distraction did equally reduce pain, and at much higher levels than by concentrating on the photo of the attractive acquaintance, but interestingly the two methods of pain reduction used very different brain pathways.

“With the distraction test, the brain pathways leading to pain relief were mostly cognitive,” Younger said. “The reduction of pain was associated with higher, cortical parts of the brain. Love-induced analgesia is much more associated with the reward centers. It appears to involve more primitive aspects of the brain, activating deep structures that may block pain at a spinal level — similar to how opioid analgesics work.

“One of the key sites for love-induced analgesia is the nucleus accumbens, a key reward addiction center for opioids, cocaine and other drugs of abuse. The region tells the brain that you really need to keep doing this,” Younger said.

“This tells us that you don’t have to just rely on drugs for pain relief,” Aron said. “People are feeling intense rewards without the side effects of drugs.”

While I was exploring this topic for today’s post, I mentioned my quest for knowledge to my LiveJournal readers. I asked two questions. What did they know of the effects of love on the brain, and had they read any fiction that used this particular area of science for plot points? Ayoub Khote, Sophy Z. S. Adani, and Patricia Esposito get credit for sending me links and giving me an overall reminder of what chemical production is stimulated by love. Please do check out the links in this post. I am sure you will find some interesting reading material.Feel free to discuss any of the linked articles here.  Speaking of reading, none of my friends could offer fiction recommendations. I was disappointed. You can help, though. Have you read a story involving this topic? If so, please share a name or a link. A

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