Are You Hooked On Love?
When you're in love your eyes and your face light up. And so do four tiny portions of your brain. "Falling in love" is a brain condition!
Neurobiologists Andreas Bartels and Semir Zeki of University College in London used fMRI brain scans to peer into the brains of college students in the throes of that crazed, "can't-think-of-anything-else" stage of early romantic love.
When the subjects were shown photographs of their sweethearts, the fMRI images showed that four parts of their brains "lit up."
The researchers compared the MRI images to brain scans taken from people in different emotional states, including sexual arousal, feelings of happiness and cocaine-induced euphoria. But the pattern for romantic love was unique.
Interestingly, looking at a picture of their loved one also reduced activity in three portions of the brain active when one is upset or depressed.
** Is Love Addictive?
When you fall in love your skin flushes, you breathe heavy, and your palms tend to sweat.
Why? Because your brain is experiencing a biochemical rush of dopamine, norepinephrine and phenylethylamine - all close chemical cousins to amphetamines.
But it's easy to build up a tolerance to these stimulating biochemicals.
Then, as with any other tolerance, it takes more of the substance to get that special feeling of infatuation.
Some neuroscientists theorize that folks who jump from one new relationship to another are biochemically "hooked" on the intoxication of falling in love.
But interestingly, in the case of enduring romance, the presence of one's partner stimulates the production of endorphins. Endorphins are the "feel good" biochemicals that also generate "runner's high." They are also natural pain-killers.
** The Biology of "Romance"
Recent research suggests that romantic attraction is actually a primitive, biologically-based drive just like hunger or thirst.
The biology of romance helps account for why we might travel cross-country for a single kiss, and plunge into hopeless despair if our beloved turns from us. It's the drive for romance that enables us to focus on one particular person, although we often can't explain why.
"What we're seeing here is the biological drive to choose a mate ? to focus on one person to the exclusion of all others," claims Helen Fisher, an anthropologist at Rutgers University.
Research has proven that romantic attraction activates portions of the brain with high concentrations of receptors for dopamine, Fisher explains. And dopamine is the brain's "chemical messenger" connected to states of euphoria, craving and addiction.
Other scientific studies have linked high levels of dopamine (and a related agent -- norepinephrine) to heightened attention and short-term memory, hyperactivity, sleeplessness and goal-oriented behavior.
Sound like love?
When they first fall in love, Fisher explains, couples often show the signs of surging dopamine: Increased energy, less need for sleep or food, and highly focused attention.
** The Psychology of Love
Poets and song writers have long claimed that the power of the biochemical state we call "romantic love" is enough to blind one's judgment. And we all know how new lovers tend to idealize their partner -- magnifying their virtues, and explaining away their flaws.
But although "love may be blind," take hope!
Pamela Regan, a Cal State LA researcher, believes such "idealization" may be crucial to building a long-term relationship. "If you don't sweep away the person's flaws to some extent, you're just as likely to end a relationship," she claims.
"This at least gives you a chance," Regan feels. "If you think of romantic attraction as a kind of drug that alters how you think, then in this case it's allowing you to take some risks you wouldn't otherwise take."
Not a bad thing!
But if passionate romance is like a drug, as the MRI images suggest, then it's bound to lose its kick. But perhaps viewing romance as a biologically based, drug-like state can at least provide some balm for a broken heart.
** Healthy Romanticizing
In a 1996 experiment, psychologists at the State University of New York at Buffalo followed a group of 121 dating couples. Every few months the couples answered questionnaires to determine how much they idealized their partner, and how well their relationship was doing.
The researchers discovered that the couples who idealized each other the most were closest one year later.
© 2004 All Rights Reserved
The author, Dr Jill Ammon-Wexler, is a doctor of psychology, pioneer brain/mind researcher, and former advisor to the Pentagon, a Presidential Commission, and numerous top executives and executive teams. The author of several books and hundreds of articles, she is also the co-founder of quantum-self.com, and the Creative Director of the Self Discovery Community. She can be reached at: email@example.com
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