Cynics of the world have long complained that love is an abstract concept, something conjured by poets and the hopelessly romantic. But the suggestion that love is a cultural invention is out of synch with the latest research.
Neuroscientists working out of Concordia University in Canada appear to have shown that love and sexual desire activate separate but related areas of the brain. This seems to indicate that there's a cognitive basis for these feelings, and that they're distinct from each other. They also discovered that the part of the brain responsible for love is the same area that lights up when a person becomes addicted to drugs — leading researchers to conclude that love is habit-forming.
Neuroscientist Jim Pfaus, along with colleagues in the USA and Switzerland, analyzed the results from 20 separate studies that examined brain activity. Their subjects were engaged in such tasks as viewing erotic pictures or looking at photographs of their significant others. After pooling this data, the psychologists compiled a complete "map" of love and desire in the brain.
As usual with this sort of research, however, it's important to remember that these sorts of "brain scan" studies are often a lot more inconclusive, and the results a lot more overstated, than people realize. As Vaughan Bell wrote in the Observer recently:
Neuroscientists have long been banging their heads on their desks over exaggerated reports of brain scanning studies. Media stories illustrated with coloured scans, supposedly showing how the brain works, are now a standard part of the science pages... This misplaced enthusiasm often stems from a misunderstanding about what brain scans tell us. The interpretation seems straightforward according to the popular press – the coloured blobs represent a "pleasure centre", an "art centre" or perhaps a "love centre" – but none of this is true.
But with that caution in mind, the Concordia University researchers may have found a pattern, in which sexual desire progresses into love, in a linear process. In particular, they studied two brain regions, the insula and the striatum. The insula is a portion of the cerebral cortex folded deep within an area between the temporal lobe and the frontal lobe, and the striatum is located nearby, right inside the forebrain.
The researchers discovered that love and sexual desire appear to activate different areas of the striatum. Sexual desire lights up the area that's activated by things that are pleasurable, like sex and food. Love, meanwhile, activates an area that's involved in the process of conditioning. This is the effect of having feelings paired with reward or pleasure. Consequently, as feelings of sexual desire develop into love, they are processed in a different place in the striatum –- the exact same area that's associated with drug addiction.
This result came as a bit of a surprise to the researchers, but it made sense. As Pfaus stated through a release, "Love is actually a habit that is formed from sexual desire, as desire is rewarded. It works the same way in the brain as when people become addicted to drugs."
But Pfaus cautions that this doesn't necessarily mean that love is akin to a drug addiction in any negative sense. Love activates different pathways in the brain, involved in monogamy and in pair bonding. He also notes that some areas in the brain are actually less active when a person feels love than when they experience lust. "While sexual desire has a very specific goal, love is more abstract and complex, so it's less dependent on the physical presence [of] someone else," says Pfaus.
So don't feel so bad the next time you have lustful feelings; it's just your brain getting you primed for something a bit deeper. And for people who feel still cynical about "love," it may be true that the researchers have conflated longterm attachment with love. But either way, you're still hooked.
Image via Shutterstock.com/conrado. Inset image of lit-up striatum via BrainFacts