After scanning the brains of 100 students, a third of whom were hopelessly in love with someone, scientists have managed to reveal some of the changes in brain activity that are related to love. Those smitten with someone showed increased neuronal activity in several brain regions, including a component of the reward circuitry, when compared with those who were out of love. According to the researchers, these findings help shed light on the underlying neural mechanisms of romantic love and demonstrate that the methods used could represent a valid way to investigate love. The study has been published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.
What is love? That’s not easy to answer, but according to psychologists, it is “a motivational state associated with a desire to enter or maintain a close relationship with a specific other person.” However, this doesn’t provide insight into the underlying biology of this intriguing state, which is known to be associated with a variety of profound effects, such as euphoria, craving, obsession, personality changes and even risk-taking.
It is therefore clear that love is a complex mix of cognitive, emotional and behavioral components, so what is the neurological basis for it? There has been an increasing amount of interest in this subject over recent years, with several studies devoted to examining patterns of brain activity of those in love. While these investigations were interesting, they were limited in the fact that they only looked at brain changes associated with particular tasks, such as looking at a photograph of a loved one. It therefore remained unknown whether romantic love can affect the functional architecture of the brain, which is what the current study endeavored to find out.
For the investigation, an international team of researchers from institutions in China and New York enrolled 100 healthy college students from Southwest University who were all over the age of 18. Volunteers were then divided into three different groups based on their current romantic relationship status: the “in-love” category, consisting of individuals currently deeply in love; the “ended-love” category, composed of those who had recently ended a relationship and were no longer in love; and the “single” group, consisting of individuals who had never been in love. Among these groups, there were no significant differences found in age, education or income.
They then used resting state fMRI to investigate the brain activity of all the participants whilst they were not thinking about anything so that the scientists could get an overall picture of their functional architecture. They found that, compared to the other groups, those within the in-love group presented increased activity across several regions, including those involved in reward, motivation, emotion and social functioning. Furthermore, the longer they had been in love, the greater the activity observed. Conversely, for those in the ended-love group, the longer the time since breakup, the lower the amount of activity.
While these findings are certainly interesting, it’s necessary to note that the study has several important limitations. It was not conducted over time, so we don’t know the levels of brain activity before falling in love. Furthermore, it is reliant on the students’ classification of being in love, which is subjective.