- Feelings associated with romantic love arise when the brain’s hypothalamus and pituitary cause hormones such as oxytocin to be released.
- Research from China suggests that romantic love can, in turn, change the structure of our brains.
- The research showed that brains of people in love are more internally connected, both within and across different brain regions.
Poets and songwriters claim that love lives in our hearts. And, while it’s true that being in love can change the way our heart operates, and even help it remain healthy (1), most of what goes on when we love someone occurs, or at least starts, in the brain.
For instance, neuroscientists studying attraction, affection, and attachment (different dimensions of love) have learned that certain hormones controlled or produced by the brain’s hypothalamus and pituitary gland play a major role in creating subjective experiences of lust (attraction), emotional connection (affection), and ultimately deep bonding (attachment). Testosterone (whose secretion by the testes and adrenal glands is regulated by the brain) fuels lust in both sexes, while oxytocin and vasopressin (also regulated by the brain) contribute to feelings both of affection and attachment.(2,3,4,5)
These discoveries have found their way into popular culture, where, for example, oxytocin is now routinely called the “love hormone.”
So, the brain, through the action of the hypothalamus and pituitary, does indeed influence the experience of love. But is the reverse also true? Can love actually change our brains?
Love changes the brain
Research out of China suggests the answer is "yes," showing that the feelings of love not only affect our brains but also produce long-term changes in their functional architecture.(6)
Dr. Hongwen Song and colleagues at Southwest University used fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging, which shows simultaneous neural and metabolic activity in different brain regions) to study three groups: those currently intensely in love (Love Group), a group who had all recently ended a loving relationship (End Love), and a group professing never to have been in love (Single).
The researchers focused on two dimensions of functional architecture (the physiological “wiring diagram” of different populations of neurons), functional connectivity and regional homogeneity.
With a resting state fMRI, in which the subjects' brains received minimal stimulation in the MRI machine, populations of neurons in different brain regions whose activity is highly correlated (i.e., neurons in the different regions are simultaneously active or quiet) are deemed to be functionally connected on the assumption that correlated activity arises from the different regions electrically stimulating each other.
Within a specific brain region, such as the cingulate cortex, resting state activity of different populations of neurons also can either be correlated or uncorrelated, where correlated activity implies rich local connectivity and uncorrelated activity, a lesser degree of connectivity. To the extent neurons within a region display correlated resting activity, that region is considered to have regional homogeneity, whereas lack of such correlation implies regional inhomogeneity.
In Song et al’s study, marked differences in both functional connectivity and regional homogeneity were seen among the three groups:
- Regional homogeneity of the left anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), an area believed to play a role in the regulation of emotions, (7) was greater in the Love Group than either the End Love Group or Single Group.
- Regional homogeneity in the left ACC of Love Group subjects increased with increasing duration of being in love, while in the End Love Group, left ACC homogeneity increased as the length of time since a painful breakup increased.
- Functional connectivity among different regions of the so-called “motivation-reward” network (encompassing ACC, insula, caudate, amygdala, and nucleus accumbens) and the “social cognition” network (temporo-parietal junction, posterior cingulate cortex, medial prefrontal cortex, inferior parietal, precuneus, and temporal lobe) was greater in the In Love Group than the other two groups.
- In most regions of both the “motivation reward” and “social cognition” networks, functional connectivity in the In Love group increased with increasing duration of the loving relationship, and in the End Love group increased with the amount of time lapsed from a painful breakup.
Taken together, these findings imply that being in love literally helps your brain “keep itself together” while being single or lovelorn seems to have the opposite effect.
Perhaps, before Song et al’s research, we already knew this at some deep level, observing that we feel “whole” or “completed” when in love, but “shattered” or “falling apart” when a romantic relationship ends.
Whether or not language and popular culture have known for centuries what Song et al recently discovered in the laboratory, this Valentine’s Day, doing whatever you can to keep your loving relationship strong is probably a good way to keep yourself together.
2) Aron, A., Fisher, H., Mashek, D. J., Strong, G., Li, H., & Brown, L. L. (2005). Reward, motivation, and emotion systems associated with early-stage intense romantic love. Journal of neurophysiology, 94(1), 327-337.
3) de Boer, A., Van Buel, E. M., & Ter Horst, G. J. (2012). Love is more than just a kiss: a neurobiological perspective on love and affection. Neuroscience, 201, 114-124.
4) Dębiec, J. (2007). From affiliative behaviors to romantic feelings: a role of nanopeptides. FEBS letters, 581(14), 2580-2586.
5) Zeki, S. (2007). The neurobiology of love. FEBS letters, 581(14), 2575-2579