How to Use Brain Mapping When Dealing with Love – Anatomy of Love

brainheartIt’s been awhile but I was contacted by the Anatomy of Love.  They wanted to share their ideas about how our brain and mind work together when we fall in love.  There is some interesting stuff in here.  Give it a read through.  You might find that love and your response to it may be a bit more grounded then you thought.

What is your mind doing when you fall in love?


How to Use Brain Mapping When Dealing with Love

Science is an amazing thing. It can explain the previously unexplainable, provide guide maps for better living, and increase our understanding of the world around us. But matters of the heart are messy and complicated—more philosophy than hard science, right? Surprisingly, while it can’t give us all the answers, science has provided incredible insights into the physical and biochemical processes involved with falling in love. Brain mapping research gives us an excellent look at exactly what happens in the brains of those who are in love and, by extension, those who have been jilted by their lovers.

What is brain mapping?

With over 100 billion cells, more than the number of stars in the entire Milky Way, the human brain is a highly complex organ. Yet fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imagery) can create a map of every single cell, safely and harmlessly, while the subject is awake. The idea is simple—by tracking the minute traces of iron in blood cells, the fMRI can determine which brain cells have more blood flow, and are thus working harder.

How was the brain mapping of love studied?

Our intensive brain mapping research studied the effects of romantic love by exposing subjects to a photo of their beloved and a photo of a neutral person of their own choosing. In between, we had them count backwards by sevens from a high starting number to clear the brain of residual thoughts. We found that certain areas of the brain, specifically the ventral tegmental area (VTA) and the caudate nucleus, were highly activated by thoughts of the beloved.

The brain’s reward system

Both sections of the brain (the VTA and caudate nucleus) are part of the reward system. The VTA produces dopamine and other chemicals that trigger feelings of intense highs and create the energy, passion, and focus needed to pursue romantic love. The caudate nucleus is a sort of integrative brain region that pulls together stimuli from other areas of the brain, creating the complex feelings of being “in love.”

Predicting love’s success

Interestingly, brain mapping can actually help to predict whether a relationship is likely to last. One study took early brain scans of couples in love, and then followed up three years later to find out if they were still together. The ‘early-stage love’ brain scans of those who were still together three years later were compared with those of couples who had broken up.

People who remained in love showed markedly different brain activity in those early scans than those who were no longer dating. Specifically, they showed much lower activity in the regions of the brain responsible for judging others and putting the self first. It appears that those who are truly ready for love, and are aware that it means compromise, a lack of harsh criticism, and putting the other’s needs first, are more likely to find lasting romance.

Addiction and withdrawal

It turns out that love really is akin to an addiction. Brain maps show that love triggers all the same brain regions as any chemical addiction. This explains the powerful feelings that the recently rejected experience, and the stages involved in grieving a lost love.

Passion, the inability to think about anything else, and desperate pleas for reconciliation are at the heart of the early stages of rejection. Crying, screaming, begging, and bargaining are all triggered by the brain’s attempts to get more of the “drug.” Separation anxiety, distortion of the tough realities of the relationship, and a loss of self-control are hallmarks of this phase.

Like all addicts, those who have been through heartbreak often cycle through three phases: tolerance, withdrawal, and relapse. A simple external cue, such as a love song on the radio, can trigger long-buried feelings and cause anxiety and depression to surface. Over time, it becomes easier to live without the lost love, but those feelings are never entirely forgotten.

The X factor

Brain mapping can be highly useful in understanding the biochemical side of love, and even in predicting which unions are likely to last. But like all great mysteries, the mystery of the heart cannot be fully explained. Why do we fall in love with one person and not another? How can one partner be passionately committed to the relationship when the other is ready to walk away? What are the roots of romantic love, and why do they grow the way that they do?

The X factor is that inexplicable something that is at the heart of romantic love. While we can scientifically study its effects, we cannot yet identify why we fall in love with one person and not another. While science can analyze many aspects of romantic love, perhaps some areas are best left to the philosophers and poets.

Putting It All Together

It’s highly unlikely that you and your beloved will undergo fMRI brain scans to analyze your love. However, you can take the lessons of the studies and put them to use in your own romantic life. Love is a powerful addiction that can be tough to overcome. It triggers strong chemicals in the brain that provide the passion, energy, and focus needed to pursue a romantic relationship. Those who understand this chemical addiction, and are simultaneously ready to do the hard tasks involved in making a relationship work day to day, have the best chances for success. How, when, and with whom you will fall in love, though, remains one of the great mysteries of the universe.


About Anatomy of Love (Lucy L. Brown, PhD and Helen Fisher, PhD)

Looking for verifiable information on the science of attraction and relationships? We’re a neuroscientist and a biological anthropologist eager to help you put the Anatomy of Love to work in your own life.
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