Love has long been known as an affair of the heart, but international research has shown that love is actually all in the head. Thanks to the power of fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), we now have complete pictures of the brain in regards to both love and sexual desire. This new research can enhance your love life in several important ways.
How is brain mapping done?
Brain mapping is the process of putting a wide-awake, healthy person into an MRI machine and taking pictures of his or her brain. By following the tiny amounts of iron present in red blood cells, scientists can determine which areas of the brain are drawing more blood, and hence are working harder.
For this research, subjects were shown photos of their beloved, pictures of friends erotic photographs, and self-selected pictures of opposite-sex friends to whom they had no attraction. Each photo caused specific feelings that were reflected in the brain. Note that because everyone is unique, the research was performed on a broad cross-section of people and the results were composited together to show overall trends.
What did the research find?
According to the results, sexual desire and love activate different sections of the same regions in the brain, but sometimes the activation is in the same area. However, desire is more focused on the basic pleasure centers, while love activates the areas that are associated with long term behavioral rewards. Interestingly, the researchers believe that the move from desire to love is similar to the pathway from drug experimentation to addiction. It turns out that love really is a drug!
Another study compared the ‘early-stage love’ brain scans of people who were still in love three years later with those of people who had ended their relationships. While the brain activity associated with desire and love matched up, other parts of the brain scans were markedly different. Specifically, those whose relationships lasted had less activity in the parts of the brain associated with selfishness and criticism. They were psychologically and physiologically ready for the hard work of making a relationship last.
How does this help me?
Since you and your beloved are unlikely to go out and get brain scans together, you might wonder what this brain research has to do with you at all. It turns out that there are several valuable lessons to be found.
Readiness matters: Love is not easy, and compromise is absolutely essential. If you enter a relationship before you are truly ready to behave selflessly, it is likely to fail. Some couples are successful at learning as they go along, but only if both partners are open to the possibility of change.
Chemistry is key: Scientists have long believed that romantic love begins with attraction, and brain mapping seems to support this. While it is true that a lot of people end up falling in love with a best friend to whom they were not initially attracted, it is likely that at some point they make the jump to attraction before they make the jump to romance.
Love is a drug: Like any drug, the brain eventually needs more and more to provide the same euphoric effects. As they move from attraction to love, couples naturally become more comfortable around each other, and intense feelings give way to easy familiarity.
This is a dangerous point for many relationships, as people begin to crave the euphoria of falling in love with someone new. However, it turns out that these feelings can be renewed simply by engaging in novel experiences together. Go to the movies, take a class, or ride a roller coaster. Whatever you do, simply experiencing it for the first time with your beloved will trigger the biochemical processes you felt when you first fell in love.
Withdrawal is real: Anyone who has ever been through a breakup is all too aware of the crashing emotional tidal waves that follow. The stages of grieving a lost relationship are quite similar to the stages of drug withdrawal, and brain mapping helps us understand why. It is easy for the brain to become addicted to the feelings associated with romantic love, and suddenly losing that love is akin to going cold turkey. While most people do eventually come through it unscathed, be kind to yourself. Recognize that there is a biochemical component to how you feel, and allow yourself the time that you need to work through it.