Science of Romance

The Short Version

Can the science of romance reduce the power and passion of love to brain circuitry? Can the science of love develop a pill that enhances or reduces romance and love? Will Valentine's day become a relic? Will all the books written on the art of seduction become a thing of the past?

While those questions are interesting, I doubt that the neuroscientists studying romance are anywhere near answering them.

What they are discovering is that there are key areas of the brain that are very important to the human expression of romance and love.

And that there are hormones which are at play in romance, vasopressin in men, and ocytocin in women. That is Helen Fisher's key addition to recent research on love.

The four areas of the brain so important to the science of romance are the ventral tegmental area, the nucleus accumbens, the ventral pallidum, and raphe nucleus.

"The hot spot is the teardrop-shaped VTA. When people newly in love were put in a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine and shown pictures of their beloved, the VTA lit up. Same for people still madly in love after 20 years.

The VTA is part of a key reward system in the brain.

"These are cells that make dopamine and send it to different brain regions," said Helen Fisher, a researcher and professor at Rutgers University. "This part of the system becomes activated because you're trying to win life's greatest prize — a mating partner."

One of the research findings isn't so complimentary: Love works chemically in the brain like a drug addiction."

So what happens if romance ends?

The researchers say that the nucleus accumbens becomes more active in the romance process when love ends, and the experience of the lover at that moment is one of craving, like for a drug.

(That is interesting information for those in the domestic violence field, that stalking might be a craving for the resumption of dopamine pumped by a few neurons in the brain in the ventral tegmental area).

Some fMRI work is taking a look at the brains of those who are still in love after 20 years, and discovering that the ventral pallidum and raphe nucleus are active for those folks, and those areas of the brain are associated with attachment and hormones that decrease stress, while the raphe nucleus pumps serotonin, which gives a sense of calm, a kind of contentment, everything is ok feeling.

So perhaps someday there will be a pill to induce the chemistry of romance, but in the meantime, if you want those molecules of romance, then engage in the behaviors of romance, like hugging, kissing, intimate contact, expressions of gratitude, and caresses.

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