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This is your brain on love: Lasting romance makes an impression--literally

Make fun, if you must, but it turns out that love may not fade with time, after all —  and leaves a lasting impression in our brains as well as our hearts, according to a recent study.

Researchers from Stony Brook University in New York scanned the brains of 10 women and seven men who had been married an average of 21 years and insisted they were still madly in love with their spouses. When the scientists showed the subjects photos of their partners, the fMRIs detected intense activity in the ventral tegmental area of their brains, a region that produces the pleasure-giving neurotransmitter dopamine. A previous study of 17 people in the early, lustful months of relationships showed similar activity in the same brain area, a core component of our motivation and reward network.

"It's always been assumed that passionate love inevitably declines over time," study co-author Arthur Aron, a social psychologist, told Newsday. "But in survey after survey we always have these people who have been together a long time and say they are intensely in love. It was always chalked up to self-deception or trying to make a good impression."

But Aron and his three colleagues found more than just lasting passion in the happy couples. Their scans also showed activity in their ventral pallidum, a brain region associated with feelings of long-term attachment in voles, and in the raphe nucleus, which makes the chemical serotonin that’s associated with calm and less obsession.

This, anthropologist Helen Fisher tells us today, is “the real difference between early-stage and late-stage romantic love: You feel that deep attachment and that you want to be with the person, but you don’t have that early, manic obsession of when you first fall in love of if you don’t hear from the person you cry.”

The study was presented at the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting in Washington, D.C.

"If you ask people around the world whether romantic love can last, they'll roll their eyes and say 'probably not,' and most textbooks say that, too,” Fisher, of Rutgers University, told USA Today then. “We're proving them wrong."

Image © iStockphoto/Joseph Jean Rolland Dubé

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