What’s MRI got to do with it?

Chronicling Cupid’s journey through the MRI scanners and the notion of scientifically measuring love

Measuring love through MRI signals has become the focus of many experiments for researchers like Helen Fisher.
Image supplied by: Supplied
Measuring love through MRI signals has become the focus of many experiments for researchers like Helen Fisher.

The course of love never did run smooth. It consists of raging chemicals: estrogen and testosterone, as well as dangerously high levels of dopamine and serotonin.

There is, however, a method to this madness. When confronted about our emotions in a lover’s quarrel, people can now proudly hold up an informative brain scan and declare that yes, they do in fact love their partner—it’s a fact.

Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist at Rutgers University in New Jersey, has been conducting such experiments for the past several years, trying to understand the notion of love, romance and attachment from a neurological perspective. Fisher and her colleagues have been testing out their hypothesis using individuals whom they have put in MRI brain scanners, along with some visual aids to prompt their emotional reaction.

The study consisted of 17 college students who reported being happily in love and 15 who had just been dumped. To better understand the behaviour of her subjects, Fisher asked them romance and love-related questions. The two most significant ones, Fisher said, asked the students whether they’ve ever been rejected by someone they really loved and whether they’ve ever dumped someone who really loved them. Almost 95 per cent of polled college students said yes to both.

“We found activity in tiny cells that make dopamine—a natural stimulant—and spray it to different areas of the brain,” she said. “This is part of the brain reward system, below our emotions, part of reptilian core of the brain which is associated with wanting and craving. The same area also becomes active when you feel the rush of cocaine.”

Looking at data in people who were put in the machine after they had just been dumped, Fisher said she found activity in three brain regions, the same brain regions associated with intenseromantic love.

“The reward system for wanting, motivation and focus becomes more active when you can’t get what you want,” she said. “We also found activity in the brain region associated with calculating gains and losses; we use it for calculating what went wrong, what we have lost.” “It’s also the region in the brain that becomes active when you’re willing to take enormous risks for huge gains and huge losses,” she said. And, last but not least, we found activity in the brain region that is associated with deep attachment to another individual.

What Fisher found is that romantic love is a drive—a basic mating drive.

“Love is a homeostatic imbalance and like hunger and thirst it is almost impossible to stamp out. I have also come to believe that romantic love is an addiction,” she said. “A perfectly wonderful addiction when it’s going well and a perfectly horrible addiction when it’s going poorly.” Fisher said love has all of the characteristics of an addiction.

“You focus on the person—you excessively think about them, you crave them, you distort reality—you’re willing to take huge risks to win that person. And it’s got the three main characteristics of an addiction: tolerance—you need to see them more and more and more—withdrawals and last, relapse,” she said.

Fisher said human’s furry friends are also fully capable of such loving.

“There is not an animal on this planet that will copulate with anything that comes along; too old, too young, too scruffy, too stupid and they won’t do it—unless you’re stuck in a laboratory cage, in which case you’re not going to be as picky about who you have sex with,” Fisher said.

When asked about her personal experience with the technicalities of love, Fisher said sheremains optimistic.

“People have often asked me if what I know about love has spoiled it for me; I say, ‘Hardly.’ You can know every single ingredient in a piece of chocolate cake and when you sit down to eat that cake you can still feel the same joy. It’s really deepened my understanding and compassion for all human life,” she said.

Fisher’s newest experiment focuses on couples who, after 10 to 25 years together, still report they are very much in love.

“[We are] putting people that report that they are still in love in a long term relationship into the functional MRI. We’ve put five people in so far and indeed we’ve found the exact same thing—they are not lying. The same brain area associated with romantic love is still intact 25 years later.” The question of why individuals fall in love with one person rather than another has also been of interest to Fisher and her research team.

“There are many reasons for why you fall in love with one person over another. It began to occur to me that maybe your biology pulls you towards one person rather than another and so I have concocted a questionnaire to see to what degree you express dopamine, serotonin, estrogen and testosterone,” she said.

“About 3.7 million people have taken this questionnaire in America, 600,000 have taken it in 33 other countries,” she said. “I’m putting this data together now and at some point I think I will come closer to understanding why it is when you come into a room and everybody is from your background, your same general area of intelligence, your same general area of good looks—and you don’t feel pulled to all of them. I think there is biology to that.” Queen’s psychology professor Ingrid Johnsrude said people generally take one of two stances on the subject of love and science.

“One is that the world is a more wonderful and beautiful place the more we understand; and the other is that the world is a more beautiful and wonderful place the less we understand. Neither point of view is wrong—they are aesthetic preferences.”

Johnsrude said measuring love—like measuring intelligence—is fraught with difficulty. “To measure concepts you have to operationalize them – have tests of love, or intelligence – tests that may or may not do a very good job of reflecting the concept you are aiming to measure. And tests are necessarily quite specific – they will capture some aspects of a complex, multidimensional, concept better than others.”

“For example, for more than 60 years we have operationalized intelligence by testing school-like, academic skills,” she said. “However, performance on these tests doesn’t correlate particularly well with life success—interpersonal or financial—or with happiness, and we now recognize that whole dimensions of the concept, like ability to get along well with others, leadership, wisdom and so on, are missing entirely from the conventional tests.”

Johnsrude said that love may not, in fact, be that easy to measure.

“Some things aren’t easily measurable, and some answers aren’t commensurate with the questions,” she said. “If you want to know about love – which is an experiential phenomenon – surely it makes more sense to study it experientially. Something as complex as love will have a neural signature to be sure; but what does it mean?”

Johnsrude said looking for brain areas that ‘are active’ during love doesn’t tell very much about it.

“Just like when you fly over a city at night and you see the lights twinkling, you only know that there are probably people awake down there — but you have no idea what all those millions of people are actually doing.” 

Remaining optimistic about discovering the neurological nature of love, Fisher’s final message for her audience was in a form of a challenge. It’s a challenge to understand our natural condition and come to terms with what it means to be human—specifically, what it means to be a human in love.

“Love is in us,” Fisher said. “It’s deeply embedded in our brain. Our challenge is to understand each other.”

All final editorial decisions are made by the Editor(s)-in-Chief and/or the Managing Editor. Authors should not be contacted, targeted, or harassed under any circumstances. If you have any grievances with this article, please direct your comments to journal_editors@ams.queensu.ca.

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