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PopAnth — Hot Buttered Humanity
Popular anthropology for everyone.

The brain in love

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Love hurts — and our brain shows it. In this TED talk, anthropologist Helen Fisher explains why we feel romantic love so strongly, and why it can take a long time to recover once a relationship is over.

A major factor increasing love's intensity is that it is experienced in many parts of the brain. One of these is the ventral tegmental area, located in the base of the brain. Its cells make dopamine, a natural stimulate that is released in response to rewarding experiences, such as eating and having sex.

Fisher explains that this area is way below our cognitive thinking and our emotions. It's part of the reptilian brain associated with wanting, motivation, focus, and craving. In fact, it's the same are that is actiated during a cocaine high, but much longer-lasting:

"Romantic love is more than a cocaine high. At least you come down from cocaine! Romantic love is an obsession. It possesses you. You lose your sense of self. You can't stop thinking about another human being. Somebody is camping in your head."

Fisher and her team gave MRI scans to people in love and people who had recently been dumped to discover the chemical process involved in romance. They found activity in three brain regions.

One of these was the same region that is activated in intense romantic love. This is bad news when you want to forget someone but instead find yourself loving them harder. It becomes more active, not less, when you can't get what you want.

The second region they found activity in is one associated with calculating gains and losses. When you've been dumped, you try to calculating what went wrong, what you have lost. This is also the area that becomes active when you're willing to take enormous risks.

The third region of activity in the minds of those who had been dumped was one associated with deep attachment.

No wonder there are crimes of passion, argues Fisher. When you are in love, you feel "the willingness to risk it all to win life's greatest prize."

Over two thousand years ago, Plato wrote that "the god of love lives in a state of need." Like hunger and thirst, love is almost impossible to stamp out. It is like an addiction: wonderful when going well, horrible when going badly. And it has all the characteristics of an addiction: a build-up of tolerance, withdrawals, relapse.

The good news is that, for those who are in long-term relationships, you can stop worrying about whether the love you think you still feel for your partner is real. Fisher and her team also put people in an MRI scanner who were in long-term relationships and claimed to still love their partners.

They weren't lying, she reports: the areas of the brain associated with romantic love still became activated twenty-five years into their relationships.

This TED talk was filmed in February 2008. Since then, Fisher has gone on to look at why we fall in love with a certain person.

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