The Sexy Brain: Neuroscience and Romantic Love

The Sexy Brain: Neuroscience and Romantic Love
Forty years ago romantic love was viewed as a passionate, impermanent love which leaves the couple disappointed and, as often as not, ready to terminate the relationship. Romantic love was viewed as immature and needing to give way to a more enduring, rational love, referred to as companionate love. Romantic love could cause sleepless nights, heart palpations, sweaty palms, and impulsive behavior. In clinical practice, romantic love was relegated to the ranks of a negative emotion, which for the most part needed to be controlled and subdued by the more advanced and mature rational brain. Clinicians shied away from addressing romantic love because it was impermanent and couples needed to attain the more lasting and deeper aspect of love. Although most people married because of romantic love and many divorced when it decreased, there was little inquiry into how romantic love contributes to the formation and maintenance of adult intimate relationships.
Over the years, much research has added to our knowledge of relationship formation and maintenance, including expanding the concept of romantic love. One of the most significant contributions was applying attachment theory, which began in the mid 1980s (Hazen and Shaver, 1987). Romantic love and attachment were viewed as analogous processes in both structure and function. These researchers hypothesized that styles of attachment developed in early childhood would correspond with adult romantic relationships.
In addition to applying the attachment model to romantic love, researchers found evidence that romantic love was a universal cross-cultural experience in the same way that attachment appears to be universal (Jankowiak & Fischer, 1992) .These ideals were then applied to working clinically with couples through such noted work as Susan Johnson (1986) and others. A model for clinical practice was developed based on the similarity of attachment theory and romantic love. This model postulated that both attachment and romantic love form outside of awareness and involve the implicit memory system. Suggestions for intervention include building new experiences and indirect methods as opposed to verbal direct techniques of interventions (Roberts, 1992).
In the past decade and a half, another significant leap has occurred in the research and application to romantic love literature, namely the use of brain imaging techniques. Neuroscientists use a procedure called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which is a scanning of the brain using radio and magnet waves that detects changes in blood flow that indicate increased or decreased activity in regions of the brain. This technology has provided a window into brain activity associated with intimate relationships which can detect how the brain functions in intimate relationships. Interestingly, romantic love is associated with a reduction of activity in the cerebral cortex, including the temporal parietal and frontal cortex, the brain region linked to moral judgment and reasoning (Zeki & Romaya, 2008). This finding indicate that while thoughts may be a part of the brain’s response to romantic relationships, what really is activated is something entirely different. It also suggests why romantic love may be blind. A person in an intense romantic love state will overlook the negative characteristics of the partner and focus only on the positive attributes. The same results were obtained for both males and females and for gay and lesbian individuals, which would support the conclusion that these brain changes are universal.
While past conceptualization of romantic love considered it to be short-lived and mainly an emotion, recent brain imaging research has found that it can be lasting and typically is concentrated in non-limbic systems areas of the brain (Aceveda, Aron, Fisher & Brown, 2011). In comparing long-term romantic relationships with newly formed ones, researchers found that activity in the ventral tegmental area (VTA), activates the release of dopamine, a central part of the brain’s reward network. The VTA stimulates other regions of the brain, such as the caudate nucleus including the right medial and poster-dorsal network. These findings support an interpretation of romantic love as being closely related to the goal oriented reward seeking areas of the brain (Bartels & Zeki, 2004). This is the same brain network that is activated when one is under the influence of a drug producing a “high”, such as cocaine.
These findings would suggest that a new definition of romantic love is in order. Viewed as a drive and partner with the reward network frees romantic love from the longstanding definition of an impermanent and irrational emotion. The new definition can include goal oriented behavior along side other drives that can be taken for granted. The caveat is that romantic love could easily be reduced to being defined as an addiction, which would again mar the significant impact that romantic love has on understanding long-term relationships.
In addition, Acevada and associates (2011) found that a person in long-term romantic relationship who has high sexual frequency, tends to activate the posterior hippocampus, noted as the “sexy brain network.” Perhaps the involvement of the posterior hippocampus allows one to remember previous sexy experiences that would be linked to specific rewards. It can then be hypothesized that if romantic love is associated with the brain’s reward network, couples with past rewarding intimate experiences would tend to be more satisfying and long-term. These romantic perceptions may form very quickly. For example, Ortigue, Bianchi-Demicheli, Patel, Frum, and Lewis, (2010) found that first time visual contact with a potential intimate partner can cause the brain to respond immediately, which would suggest that romance is an implicit and non-cognitive process. It could also give credibility to the idea that falling in love at first sight does occur.
Researchers have investigated brain areas that are active in attachment, such as maternal attachment and found that the thalamus and the substantia nigra, both having enormous oxytocin and vasopressin receptors (Acevada, et al., 2011) are active in human bonding activity. These areas were also activated by romantic love. Another area of the brain noted as the dorsal Raphe which is related to reduction in pain and stress is activated in mother/child bonding and also in long-term romantic relationships. Relationship that can reduce stress and pain are more rewarding and valued than other relationships. Researchers have noted that newly formed romantic relationships do not show activation in these same centers of the brain, confirming that attachment bonds take some time to form. In the same way that attachment might work to reduce stress and pain between mother and child, romantic love may also reduce stress and pain in an intimate relationship.
Research from animal studies indicates that long-term romantic relationships produce activation of the anterior cingulated cortex and the right mid-insula cortex but not short-term or newly formed romantic relationships. In addition, the ventral pallidum, which is associated with higher production of vasopressin, a hormone present in bonding relationships is activated (Aron et al., 2005). While there is not a complete overlap of romantic love and attachment, some of the dame systems are engaged. These overlapped regions include medial insula, anterior cingulated gyrus, and caudate nucleus.
Research in sexual attraction produce some overlap, but for the most part conclude that romantic love and sexual attraction are two distinct brain networks. For example, Beauregard, Levesque, and Bourgouin (2001) found that the limbic system, specifically the right amygdale and the right anterior pole and hypothalamus are activated when men view erotic material and for couples experiencing romantic love. However, these two systems function differently for individuals in that romantic love continues despite lack of sexual satisfaction or even contact with the other. Also, persons can engage in sexual activity without experiencing romantic love (Aron & Aron, 1991).
Researchers have also investigated brain responses to losing a romantic love object or being “dumped.” If experiencing romantic love activates the reward systems of the brain, what areas are activated when one is rejected? Researchers have found that similarities exist between those “in love” couples and those rejected in love (Aron et al., 2005). Increased activity was found in the ventral striatum/putamen/pallidum area for rejected in love persons and for those experiencing romantic love. The study also found that there was significantly greater activity in the lateral orbitofrontal cortex and anterior insula/operculum cortex for those rejected in love. Similarity of those experiencing romantic love and those rejected related to brain areas of rewards, physical pain, and obsessive/compulsive behavior.
These findings are interesting and raise particular questions related to the formation and maintenance of romantic relationships. This emerging body of research is important because it supports the clinical application of an implicit process that forms outside of consciousness and activates areas of the brain that respond poorly to direct interventions. While there is still much to learn from this emerging perspective, it seems clear that romantic love increases dopamine and activates the reward network in the brain. At the same time couples are developing bonding through increased oxytocin and vasopressin which perpetuate their romantic attachment. Implicit memory kicks in to reinforce the reward system.
On the other hand, this brain research can also explain how a couple might “fall out of love.” For example, when one’s partner no longer activates the reward network and instead activates the pain center, persons may seek to terminate the relationship. What is going on with the couple is much more than negative feelings that could be erased through better communications. What should to be focused on clinically is the implicit rewards that the relationship was providing. Consequently, the loss of love is much more than negative emotion, it is more like a person in DTs. This research calls for an orientation to therapy that addresses the reward centers of the brain, increases positive implicit memories, and activates safety and security while at the same time offering some risk and novelty. Creating new experiences that activate the reward network and form powerful bonding implicit memories could create a change dynamic.
Acevada, B., Aron, A., Fisher, H., & Brown, L.L. (2011). Neural correlates of long-term intense romantic love. Social, cognitive, and Affective Neuroscience, doi:10.1093/scan/nsq092.
Aron, A., & Aron, E.N. (1991). Falling in love: Perspective studies of self-concept change. Journal of Personal and Social Psychology, 69,1102-1112.
Aron, A., Fisher, H.E., Mashek, D.J., Strong, G., Li, H.F., & Brown, L.L. (2005). Reward, motivation and emotional systems associated with early-stage intense romantic love: An fMRI study. Journal of Neurophysiology 94,327-337.
Bartels, A.,& Zeki, S. (2004). The neural correlates of maternal and romantic love. Neurolmage. 21, 1155-1166.
Beauregard, M., Levesque, J., & bourgouin, P. (2001). Journal of Neuroscience, 21, RC165.
Jankowiak, W.R., & Fischer, E.F. (1992). A cross-cultural perspective on romantic love. Ethnology, 31, 149.
Johnson, S.M. (1986). Bonds or bargains: Relationship paradigms and their significance for marital therapy. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 12, 259-268.
Hazen, C., & Shaver, P. (1987). Romantic love conceptualized as an attachment process. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52, 511-524.
Ortigue, S., Bianchi-Demicheli, F., Patel, N., Frum. J., & Lewis, J.W. (2010). Neuroimaging of love: fMRI meta-alanysis evidence toward new perspectives in Sexual Medicine. The Journal of Sexual Medicine, 7, 3541-3552.
Roberts, T.W. (1992) Sexual Attraction and romantic love: Forgotten variables in marital therapy. Journal of Marital and Family therapy, 18, 357-364.
Zeki, S., & Romaya, J, (2008). Neural correlates of hate, PLoS ONE 3(10): e3556. doi:101371/journal.pone0003556.

About Dr. Roberts

Dr. Roberts has worked for the past 25 years in the field of Child and Family Development. He has a PhD in Child and Family Development with an Emphasis in Marriage and Family Therapy. He also has an EdS degree in Counseling and the MDiv degree in Theology. He directed the Marriage and Family Therapy program at Appalachian State University, Chaired the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences at Long Beach State, and chaired the Department of Child and Family Development at San Diego State University. Dr. Roberts is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in the state of Georgia and had his own practice before starting his long career in higher education. Dr. Roberts also holds the title of Elder in the United Methodist Church.
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