all you need is….

Inlovejenluc It's Valentine's Day again, which means it's time for various media outlets to turn an analytical science-y eye on that most magical-seeming human emotion: love. The inevitable tension is best captured in the romantic comedy Sleepless in Seattle, where various characters talk about the "magic" of the moment when they first knew they'd met "the one." Except for the psychiatrist, who reassures his sister, the recently-engaged Annie (Meg Ryan), that a little trepidation before marriage is perfectly normal: "What we think of as love is merely two neuroses realizing they're a perfect match." It's a movie, so magic wins out in the end, despite the great distance (Seattle and Baltimore). But there's no denying science plays a role in human beings in love.

The film dates from 1993, and it shows: the Internet was just in its infancy, and online dating was seen as suspect, if not outright dangerous. How could you possibly find the perfect match in CyberSpace? (Regular readers already know I met the Spousal Unit through our respective blogs, which isn't exactly a dating service, but proves the same point: technology can help two people find each other, even if they live thousands of miles apart.) There are still plenty of caveats and disagreements about just how successful things like eHarmony and have been, but today, according to this article at Discovery News, online dating has largely lost its stigma: it's just seen as one in a broad arsenal of tools people use to find romantic attachment.

In one of the first studies to compare newlyweds who met online with ones who met through more traditional routes, researchers found that online daters were slightly older and their courtships had progressed more quickly. But meeting online didn't mean people were any less attractive, intelligent or self-assured. Once they were married, the way they met had no impact on their relationships. … "Our preliminary results suggest that, in terms of personal qualities, people who meet online are not that different from people who look for partners through other mechanisms," said Alicia Cast, a sociologist at the University of Iowa, Ames. "I'm not sure technology is altering things as dramatically as people think it is."

Sleepless in Seattle (1993)
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Scientists still have a lot to learn about love (or any other human emotion, for that matter), but biochemistry certainly plays a role in how we form attachments, most notably dopamine — released in response to pleasurable activities, and highly concentrated during the early infatuation phase of a relationship — and oxycontin oxytocin and vasopressin. (The former is the same chemical scientists believe help mothers bond with their infants.)

Various parts of the brain are involved as well. Back in 2004, Forbes reported on the work of Andreas Bartels and Semir Zeki, who claimed to have produced the first fMRI images of your brain on love. There is still some skepticism about their work; Caltech neuroscientist John Allman, for instance, cautions in the article about the difficulties of distinguishing between love and lust on fMRI scans, although Bartels argues his scans are markedly different from the areas of the brain activated when subjects are, say, watching pornography.

In fact, he's compared his fMRI images of people in love to those of mothers looking at their infants, and found the scans were almost identical — except in the former case, there was extra activity in the hypothalamus, which is linked to sexual arousal. The reward center of the brain lights up when we're in love (winning the lottery produces the same effect), but what's really interesting is which regions get turned off: those commonly associated with things like moral judgement. Apparently love really is blind, and Bartels has the fMRI images to prove it:


The study of love continues apace. According to this article in the Los Angeles Times, there's a new study by Bianca Acevedo (a postdoc at the University of California, Santa Barbara) that suggests one bit of conventional wisdom isn't true: the notion that after the first flush of romantic excitement wears off, partners settle into a less intense, more companionable relationship that is far less thrilling than the infatuation phase. Acevedo says this isn't the case for roughly 30% of US married couples. She looked at brain scans of couples married 20 years or so and still claimed to be in love — and they showed the exact same neural activity as newlyweds, "only without the anxiety or obsession." I've only been married to the Spousal Unit for 2-1/2 years, so things are early yet, but one of (many) reasons I married him was the same lack of anxiety or obsession — without sacrificing the excitement of being in love. It's a rare gift.

Apparently all that relationship advice meted out by therapists the world over has some basis in science. "Doing novel, exciting things together boosts marital happiness," according to Acevedo's study, perhaps because this releases dopamine. Ditto for focusing on positive rather than negative aspects of your partner or relationship, resolving "conflict smoothly and quickly," being affectionate, communicating readily, and, of course, sex — all these things can trigger an influx of oxycontin oxytocin, apparently.

And speaking of sex, what Valentine's Day post would be complete without Mary Roach, author of Bonk, giving a TED talk about the 10 weirdest things you don't know about orgasms? Bonk ranks as one of the best popular science books ever written, in my opinion, because in addition to some truly fascinating science, Roach approaches her subject with good humor. (I especially like the bit about the woman who experienced orgasm every time she brushed her teeth: "You'd think think woman would have excellent oral hygiene," Roach wryly comments, but apparently not: the poor woman assumed she must be demon-possessed.) I dragged the Spousal Unit to Disneyland and to Vegas for the calculus book; Roach's long-suffering husband did the deed in an MRI machine. Now that's a testament to true love.

5 thoughts on “all you need is….”

  1. Ummmm. Jen, you’re pretty good at physics (and you have Sean to proof for you), but when you dabble in bio-medicine, perhaps you need a copy editor. The first time I thought it was an amusing malapropism, but using “oxycontin” twice when you clearly meant “oxytocin” is not helping John or Jane Q. Public learn accurate science.

  2. Jennifer Ouellette

    Duly corrected. Everyone needs a copy editor. But you know, I doubt John or Jane Q Public would notice…

  3. I do agree with Chezjake. I am no biologist, but a physicist, and I knew of oxytocin. I wished Jen did not underestimate her readers, even if they were John or Jane Q. Public. Accuracy in Science is always a must.

  4. So just how would science explain those of us, and I’m not the only one, who have absolutely no interest in marriage or even being in a long term relationship? I love my freedom to come and go whenever I want and answer to no one. I love the ability to take the classes and lessons and do the theater that other people’s kids do without having to worry about being responsible for another human being. No way could I ever put anyone else first. While this may sound selfish, I volunteer at a food pantry and do a lot of community service. It’s just that I never felt any desire for a significant other of either gender. I’ve met many people who feel the same way but are afraid to say so because they somehow feel they will be stigmatized and looked at as strange. It’s not age either. I was born in 1965, and please, God, let me live and die single, free as a bird!

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