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Oh, I would stake all for you.
Anthropologist Helen Fisher studies gender differences and the evolution of human emotions. She’s best known as an expert on romantic love, and her beautifully penned books — including Anatomy of Love and Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love — lay bare the mysteries of our most treasured emotion.
She and her colleagues Art Aron and Lucy Brown and others, have put 37 people who are madly in love into a functional MRI brain scanner. 17 who were happily in love, 15 who had just been dumped, and we’re just starting our third experiment: studying people who report that they’re still in love after 10 to 25 years of marriage. So, this is the short story of that research.
Around the world, people love
They sing for love, they dance for love, they compose poems and stories about love. They tell myths and legends about love. They pine for love, they live for love, they kill for love, and they die for love. Anthropologists have found evidence of romantic love in 170 societies. They’ve never found a society that did not have it.
But love isn’t always a happy experience
In one study of college students, they asked a lot of questions about love, but the two that stood out to me the most were, “Have you ever been rejected by somebody who you really loved?” And the second question was,“Have you ever dumped somebody who really loved you?” And almost 95 percent of both men and women said yes to both. Almost nobody gets out of love alive.
Our first study of people who were happily in love
We found activity in a tiny, little factory near the base of the brain called the ventral tegmental area. We found activity in some cells called the A10 cells, cells that actually make dopamine, a natural stimulant, and spray it to many brain regions. Indeed, this part, the VTA, is part of the brain’s reward system.
In fact, the same brain region where we found activity becomes active also when you feel the rush of cocaine.
The people who were put into the machine after they had just been dumped
We found activity in three brain regions. We found activity in the brain region, in exactly the same brain region associated with intense romantic love. What a bad deal.
That brain system — the reward system for wanting, for motivation, for craving, for focus — becomes more active when you can’t get what you want. In this case, life’s greatest prize: an appropriate mating partner.
We found activity in other brain regions also — in a brain region associated with calculating gains and losses. And indeed, it’s this part of the brain, the core of the nucleus accumbens, actually, that is becoming active as you’re measuring your gains and losses. It’s also the brain region that becomes active when you’re willing to take enormous risks for huge gains and huge losses.
Last but not least, we found activity in a brain region associated with deep attachment to another individual. No wonder people suffer around the world, and we have so many crimes of passion.
What have I learned from this experiment that I would like to tell the world?
Foremost, I have come to think that romantic love is a drive, a basic mating drive. Not the sex drive — the sex drive gets you out there, looking for a whole range of partners. Romantic love enables you to focus your mating energy on just one at a time, conserve your mating energy, and start the mating process with this single individual.
Romantic love is an addiction
It has all of the characteristics of addiction. You focus on the person, you obsessively think about them, you crave them, you distort reality, your willingness to take enormous risks to win this person. And it’s got the three main characteristics of addiction: tolerance, you need to see them more, and more, and more; withdrawals; and last, relapse.
Complement this Ted talk with The Mathematics of Love.