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Sex, Lies, and Online Dating

Written by October 26, 2010

Safeguarding Your Love Life – Part 6

The Brain On Love
To better understand what happens in the brain when we are in love, anthropologist Helen Fisher and fellow researchers gathered thirty-seven people who were madly in love and scanned their brains with a functional MRI brain scanner.  The researchers were curious to find out what, if anything, the brain might divulge. Would they detect any unique activity connected with romantic love? Might the brain reveal the secrets to romance?

Of the thirty-seven subjects the researchers examined, seventeen were happily in love.  Fifteen had just been dumped, and the remaining reported that they were still happily in love after 10-25 years of marriage. Upon examining the brains of those happily in love, the researchers noticed increased activity in a small factory near the base of the brain known as the ventral tegmental area (or, VTA.) Specifically, the researchers noticed activity in the A-10 cells – the cells that make dopamine and spray it to many brain regions. This dopamine spraying mechanism is part of the brain’s reward system. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter– a natural stimulant associated with feelings of pleasure and reinforcement. It can motivate a person proactively to perform certain activities and is released by naturally rewarding experiences such as food and sex, as well as with the use of certain drugs and other neutral stimuli that become associated with them. The spraying mechanism the researchers observed is situated deep in the brain. It is below the cognitive thinking area, below even the emotions. It is located in a primal area otherwise known as the “reptilian core of the brain” – an area associated with wanting and motivation, and with focus and craving.  Interestingly (and perhaps not so surprising) it is also the area of the brain that becomes active when one feels the rush of cocaine.

The rush of romantic love, however, is far more complex than a cocaine high, Fisher explains. A cocaine high wears off. One comes down from it. But romantic love is not so easily predicted or measured. It takes hold of a person. One loses their sense of self. You can’t stop thinking about the person you love. You become obsessed. You are, for all intents and purposes, possessed.  And paradoxically, perhaps even cruelly, the obsession actually intensifies when you need it to stop the most – when you have been rejected.

Remarkably, the MRI’s of the persons who had been dumped showed activity in three areas of the brain:  First, as if by some cruel trick of nature, in the exact same region observed with romantic love. Hence, just when you would prefer to forget the person you so love, as luck would have it, you only "love them harder," Fisher notes. The reward system of the brain – the part connected with wanting, with motivation, with craving and with focus, ironically becomes more active when you cannot get what you want – in this case, the object of your affections.  As the Roman poet ‘Terence’ so aptly wrote, Fisher quotes – “The less my hope, the hotter my love.”  

The second area of the brain the researchers found activity in among those who had been dumped was in the region associated with calculating gains and losses– an area in the core of the nucleus accumbens. This is the area of the brain that becomes active when you are prepared to take enormous risks for huge gains.  The third area the researchers observed activity in was in the region associated with deep attachment to another individual.  Given all this, Fisher notes empathically in her TED video address1, “No wonder people suffer around the world, and we have so many crimes of passion.  When you’ve been rejected in love, not only are you engulfed with feelings of romantic love, but you are feeling deep attachment to this individual. Moreover, this brain circuit for reward is working, and you’re feeling intense energy, focus, motivation, and the willingness to risk it all to win life’s greatest prize.”  

So what did the researchers ultimately learn from the study?  The next chapter in the series reveals all.  In the meantime, Spokeo reminds you – before you succumb to the powerful influence of dopamine et al. and fall head over heels, be sure to learn whatever you can about the person you are considering going out with first. Always practice safe dating. One easy step you can take is to conduct a quick online search about your date with a people-search engine like Spokeo. Discover what social networks he or she is on, what company he or she might be keeping, and possibly a whole lot more. TO BE CONTINUED…


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