This is the
fourth in the “Five Questions” series where we ask industry, thought and academic leaders five questions about what’s next.
1) When reviewing the scientific literature on the biology of love and sex, what did you find most surprising about the brain’s behavior when in love?
I was most surprised by what the brain suppresses when it is in love. The way we describe love in different cultures varies little. We all experience the suppression of appetite, obsession, giddiness and sexual desire. Our judgment is distorted in at least two ways: We accentuate the good traits about the person we love and diminish the bad ones, and we take a different view of the world, believing, for example, that our discretion in a relationship is greater than it really is.
When we look into the eyes of our beloved, a feedback loop occurs in the brain. This loop allows us to not only see all of the wonderful things about our beloved, but to have those positive feelings mirrored back to us. All of that is to say: When we are in love, we like ourselves better as well. And our moods are amplified. Anyone who has been in love can tell the highs are higher and, when things turn sour, the lows are lower.
Lucy Brown, a neurobiologist from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, took on the challenge of finding out how these characteristics of intense romantic love correspond with brain function. To do this, Brown and her colleagues recruited men and women who were in the early stages of a relationship (on average, 7 months). The subjects all reported being “madly, deeply and passionately” in love.
Brown and her team found that the pattern of brain activity that occurred when the subjects viewed their beloved’s face was remarkably consistent with the lover’s self-reports. The brain activity that corresponds with those feelings of intense, euphoric pleasure, is similar to the way the brain responds to cocaine or heroin. Brown and her team also found that the activity in the brain that corresponded with our ability to distort the characteristics of our beloved and the world around us was similar to obsessive/compulsive disorder. Brown and her team also conducted their experiment in Beijing, China, and found identical results. It will be interesting to see, in future, the same study conducted comparing men and women who are gay, straight and bi-sexual.
Separate, social psychology studies have also found that people in long-term relationships observe the intense, initial feelings of romantic love to last between nine months to two years. That feeling is then replaced in most couples, by a less intense feeling of loving companionship. Given that, it raises interesting and important questions about our laws. While anyone can get married immediately, most states requires a 6-to-24 month waiting period before getting a divorce. Given the nature of how our brains work when we’re in love, perhaps it should be the other way around.