I hate to break it to you, but what people call love is just a chemical reaction that compels animals to breed. It hits hard, Morty, then it slowly fades; leaving you stranded in a failing marriage. – Rick Sanchez, from Rick & Morty
Leave it to scientists – be it fictional characters from your favourite TV series, or actual, real-life scientists to dispel the notion that love is anything special, mystical, or magical. In fact, one definition of love is, (quite dispassionately) “investment in the well-being of the other for his or her own sake” . Psychologists have grappled with the definition of love – it might seem like an emotion at first, but love – feeling it, expressing it, thinking about some you love – tends to place this more as an attitude towards someone (or something) than just an emotion. In other words, emotions tend to be understood as short-lived states that change our immediate thoughts of a situation, and prompt us to behave almost on impulse towards our circumstances. But we can gradually develop feelings of attraction towards another person, or even fall out of love with someone. We can love others perpetually – as those adorable elderly couples who have been married for a long time can attest to. We even describe our love for non-human targets – hobbies, countries, and pizza.
Arthur Aron, Helen Fisher and their colleagues, the researchers scanned the brains of men and women who reported themselves to be in the early stages of romantic love. Such experiences, are characterized by emotions such as euphoria, intense longing for the other, and more generally being ‘in love.’ The research team used a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine, to detect changes in brain activity when these men and
women were shown pictures of their loved one. The brain scans show activation in areas that are associated with reward and motivation – the intense early-stage romantic love triggered brain activity that was similar to when the brain receives a desired reward . The reward pathway of the brain – referred to as the ‘dopaminergic reward pathway’ was primarily responsible for this arousal – and, more generally, the emotional ‘high’ that people experience when they see or interact with their loved ones . In the same way, this emotional high and attachment also partly explains why not being able to see your love interest results in pining, and daresay, withdrawal likened to addictions. Love – and the emotional high that it triggers – can be addictive.
Not all romantic relationships succeed, unfortunately, and the stress resulting from an unsuccessful relationship usually triggers a range of unpleasant emotions ranging from distress, trauma to what we refer to as ‘heartbreak’. Recently, researchers have also shown that acute emotional stress – perhaps from unsuccessful relationships, can trigger “broken-heart syndrome.” While the heart muscles don’t literally break or fracture, distressing emotional experiences can result in an abnormal ballooning of the heart’s left ventricle, weakening the heart’s muscles . In this particular study, the four patients studied all experienced deeply distressing experiences, with one of them having recently experienced the loss of a relative. So yes, there is a neural basis for love – and yes, part of what we call love may (simply, yet interestingly) be a series of neural activations and chemicals surging through our brains compelling us to seek out and care for prospective mating partners. However we define (or in this case, study it), undeniably love has a strong sway over our relationships, and health – even if it is all stems from series of intricate chemical-driven neural wirings.