Monday, August 13, 2007

Why you fall truly, madly, deeply in love

12 Aug 2007, ST

It's hard to follow your heart when it's really the brain that controls the rules of attraction

HER front brain is telling her he's trouble. Look at the facts, it says. He's never made a commitment, he drinks too much, he can't hold down a job.

But her middle brain won't listen. Man, it swoons, he looks great in those jeans, his black hair curls onto his forehead so adorably, and when he drags on a cigarette, he's so bad he's good.

His front brain is lecturing, too: She's flirting with every guy in the place, it says. His mid-brain is distracted by her legs, her blouse and her come-hither stare.

'What could you be thinking?' their front brains demand.

Their middle brains, each on a quest for reward, pay no heed.

Alas, when it comes to choosing mates, smart neurons can make dumb choices.

Sure, if the brain's owner is in her 40s and has been around the block a few times, she might grab her bag and scram. If the guy has reached seasoned middle age, he might think twice about that cleavage-baring temptress. Wisdom, at least a little, does come with experience.

But if the objects of desire are in their 20s, all bets are off.

A lot will depend on the influence of Mum and Dad's marriage, the gossip and urging of friends, and whether life experience have convinced these two brains that what they're looking at is attractive. She just might sidle over to Mr Wrong and bat her eyes. And he could well give in to temptation.

And so the dance of attraction, infatuation and, ultimately love, begins. It's a dance that holds many mysteries to psychologists as well as to the willing participants.

Science is just beginning to parse the inner workings of the brain in love, examining the blissful or ruinous fall from a medley of perspectives: neural systems, chemical messengers and the biology of reward.

Love revelation

IT WAS only in 2000 that two London scientists selected 70 people, all in the early sizzle of love, and rolled them into the giant cylinder of a functional magnetic resonance imaging scanner, or fMRI.

The images they got are thought to be science's first pictures of the brain in love.

The pictures were a revelation, and others have followed, showing that romantic love is a lot like addiction to alcohol or drugs.

The brain is playing a trick, necessary for evolution, by associating something that just happened with pleasure and attributing the feeling to that magnificent specimen right before your eyes.

All animals mate: The most primitive system in the brain, one that even reptiles have, knows it needs to reproduce. Turtles do it but then lay their eggs in the sand and head back to sea, never seeing their mate again.

Human brains are considerably more complicated, with additional neural systems that seek romance, others that want comfort and companionship, and others that are just out for a roll in the hay.

Yet the chemistry between two people isn't just a matter of molecules careening around the brain. Attraction also involves personal history.

'Our parents have an effect on us,' says Helen Fisher, evolutionary anthropologist at Rutgers University who studies human attraction.

'So does the school system, television, timing, mystery.'

Love, that one small word, stands for a hotchpotch of feelings and drives: lust, romance, passion, attachment, commitment and contentment.

The dance that leads, if we're lucky, to a stable commitment moves through several key steps.

First comes initial attraction, the spark. If someone's going to pick one person out of the billions of opposite-sex humans out there, it's this step that starts things rolling.

Next comes the wild, dizzying infatuation of romance - a unique magic between two people who can't stop thinking about each other. The brain uses its chemical arsenal to focus our attention on one person, forsaking all others.

'It's the love potion No. 9, the click factor, interpersonal chemistry,' says Gian Gonzaga, senior research scientist at eHarmony Labs.

The passion lasts for at least a few months, two to four years tops, says relationship researcher Arthur Aron, psychologist at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

As it fades, something more stable takes over: the steady pair-bonding of what's called companionate love.

It's a heartier variety, characterised by tenderness, affection and stability over the long haul. Far less is known about the brains of people celebrating their silver anniversaries or more, but researchers are beginning to recruit such couples to find out.

Facing the facts

THE forces of attraction are in many ways mysterious, but scientists know certain things.

Studies have shown that women prefer men with symmetrical faces and that men like a certain waist-to-hip ratio in their mates. One study even found that women, when they sniffed men's T-shirts, were attracted to certain kinds of body odours.

That initial spark can flash and fade. Or it can become a flame and then a fire, a rush of exhilaration, yearning, hunger and sense of complete union that scientists know as passionate love.

Key to this state of seeing a person as a soulmate instead of a one-night stand is the limbic system, nestled deep within the brain between the neocortex (the region responsible for reason and intellect) and the reptilian brain (responsible for primitive instincts).

Altered levels of dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin - neurotransmitters also associated with arousal - wield their influence.

But passionate love is something far stronger than that first sizzle of chemistry. 'It's a drive to win life's greatest prize, the right mating partner,' Fisher says. It is also, she adds, an addiction.

People in the early throes of passionate love, she says, can think of little else. They describe sleeplessness, loss of appetite, feelings of euphoria, and they're willing to take exceptional risks for the loved one.

Brain areas governing reward, craving, obsession, recklessness and habit all play their part in the trickery.

In an experiment published as a chapter in a 2006 book, Evolutionary Cognitive Neuroscience, Fisher found 17 people who were in relationships for an average of seven months.

She knew they were in love from their answers to what researchers call the Passionate Love Scale. They all said they'd feel deep despair if their lover left, and they yearned to know all there was to know about the loved one.

She put these lovesick, enraptured people in an fMRI to see what areas of their brains got active when they saw a photograph of their beloved ones.

'We found some remarkable things,' she said. 'We saw activity in the ventral tegmental area and other regions of the brain's reward system associated with motivation, elation and focused attention.'

It's the same part of the brain that presumably is active when a smoker reaches for a cigarette or when gamblers think they're going to win the lottery.

No wonder it's as hard to say no to the feeling of romantic arousal as it would be to say no to a windfall in the millions. The brain has seen what it wants, and it's going to get it.

'At that point, you really wouldn't notice if he had three heads,' Fisher says. 'Or you'd notice, but you'd choose to overlook it.'

Other studies also suggest that the brain in the first throes of love is much like a brain on drugs.

Lucy Brown, professor of neuroscience at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, has also taken fMRI images of people in the early days of a new love.

In a study reported in the July 2005, Journal of Neurophysiology, she, too, found key activity in the ventral tegmental area.

'That's the area that's also active when a cocaine addict gets an IV injection of cocaine,' she says. 'It's not a craving. It's a high.'

You see someone, you click, and you're euphoric. And in response, your ventral tegmental area uses chemical messengers such as dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin to send signals racing to a part of the brain called the nucleus accumbens with the good news, telling it to start craving.

'The other person becomes a goal in your life,' Brown says. He or she becomes a goal you might die without. That one person begins to stand out as the one and only.

Biologically, the cravings and pleasure unleashed are as strong as any drug.

Surely such a goal is worth taking risks for, and other alterations in the brain help ensure that the lovelorn will do just that. Certain regions, scientists have found, are being deactivated, such as within the amygdala, associated with fear.

'That's why you can do such insane things when you're in love,' Fisher says. 'You would never otherwise dream of driving across the country in 13 hours, but for love, you would.'

Sooner or later, excited brain messages reach the caudate nucleus, a dopamine-rich area where unconscious habits and skills, such as the ability to ride a bike, are stored.

The attraction signal turns the love object into a habit, and then an obsession.

According to a 1999 study in the journal Psychological Medicine, people newly in love have serotonin levels 40 per cent lower than normal people do - just like people with obsessive-compulsive disorders.

Experiments in other mammals add to the human chemical findings.

Female prairie voles, for example, develop a distinct preference for a specific male after mating, and the preference is associated with a 50 per cent increase in dopamine in the nucleus accumbens.

But when the monogamous vole is injected with a dopamine antagonist, blocking the activity of the chemical, she'll readily dump her partner for another.

Chemistry counts

THE front brain certainly gets involved as it ponders all of life's experiences and past mistakes, researchers say - but not just the front brain.

The nucleus accumbens, virtual swamp of dopamine that it is, is also holder of memories. Its quest for reward is influenced by childhood experiences, friends, previous failed engagements or the jerk who cheated on you.

And, as it happens, practical matters like whether a couple both like pina coladas do matter in igniting passionate love.

A research project headed by eHarmony Labs' Gonzaga interviewed 1,200 dating and newlywed couples. The results, reported in the July issue of The Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, found that those who reported similar interests and feelings were more satisfied.

'Those who reported chemistry said they felt at ease, relaxed, connected. They knew they had some things in common,' he says. 'Chemistry is more than just being hot or handsome.'

The free fall of love's first rush can happen at any age, whether people are 20 or 70, says Elaine Hatfield, psychology professor at the University of Hawaii.

What differs is that the older people get, the more memories they harbour of joy and trust, rejection and disappointment. And as people learn from experience, the front brain, with its logic and reason, probably gets a greater say.

'When you are young, passion and hope are so strong that's it's almost impossible to stop loving someone,' Hatfield says. 'After you've been kicked around by life, however, you start to have a dual response to handsome con men: 'Wow!' and 'Arrrrrrgh!''

Somehow, it all comes together, for better or for worse, the sum total of what's found in the mating dance of the ancient reptilian brain, the passion of the limbic brain and the logic of the neocortex.

Oh, what a ride.


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