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This article is from the In-Depth Report The Science of Love

Optical Illusions and the Illusion of Love

How do we fool thee? Let us count the ways--that illusions play with our hearts and minds



Akiyoshi Kitaoka

This is the seventh article in the Mind Matters series on the neuroscience behind visual illusions.

It’s Valentine’s season, which means that everywhere you look there are heart-shaped balloons, pink greeting cards and candy boxes filled with chocolate. But what is true love? Does it exist? Or is it simply a cognitive illusion, a trick of the mind? Let us count the ways. Contrary to the anatomy referenced in all of our favorite love songs, love (as with every other emotion we feel) is not rooted in the heart, but in the brain. (Unfortunately, Hallmark has no plans to mass-produce chocolate-covered arrow-pierced brains in the near future.) By better understanding how the brain falls in love, we can learn about why the brain can get so obsessed with this powerful emotion. In fact, some scientists even see love as a sort of addiction. For instance, neuroscientist Thomas Insel and colleagues at Emory University in Atlanta discovered that monogamous pair bonding has its basis in the same brain reward circuits that are responsible for addiction to drugs such as cocaine and heroin. Their study was conducted in the prairie vole, a small rodent that mates for life. But the conclusions are probably true for humans, too, which may explain why it is so hard to break up a long-term romantic relationship.  Losing someone you love is like going through withdrawal.

This month’s slide show features a number of visual illusions with a romantic motif. We hope that you and your special one will enjoy them. And remember, even if love is an illusion, that doesn’t mean it’s not meaningful and real (to our brains, anyway). 

Are you a scientist? Have you recently read a peer-reviewed paper that you want to write about? Then contact Mind Matters editor Jonah Lehrer, the science writer behind the blog The Frontal Cortex and the book Proust Was a Neuroscientist. His latest book is How We Decide.

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