Two weeks ago we celebrated Valentine’s Day, and by way of celebration I looked up an older article from Time Magazine called ‘The Science of Romance’.
I looked up Susan Sprecker’s ‘Passionate Love Scale‘ featured in Time Magazine and ran the test on myself. After 44 years of marriage, I rated as ‘passionate, but less intense’.
My wife tells me she scored ‘wildly, even recklessly in love’. I am working hard at changing my score. The good news is, there is a science behind all this, if I can just figure it out!
The article reports that couples who had recently fallen in love showed that brain scans (MRIs) show why it feels so good.
The earliest fMRIs of brains in love were taken in 2000, and they revealed that the sensation of romance is processed in three areas. The first is the ventral tegmental, a clump of tissue in the brain’s lover regions, which is the body’s central refinery for dopamine. Dopamine does a lot of jobs, but the thing we notice most is that it regulates reward. When you win a hand of poker, it’s a dopamine jolt that’s responsible for the thrill that follows. When you look forward to a big meal or expect a big raise, it’s a steady flow of dopamine that makes the anticipation such a pleasure.
Fisher and her colleagues have conducted recent MRI scans of people who are not just in love but newly in love and have found that their ventral tegmental areas are working particularly hard. “This little factory near the base of the brain is sending dopamine to higher regions,” she says. “It creates craving, motivation, goal-oriented behaviour — and ecstasy.”
Even with its intoxicating supply of dopamine, the ventral tegmental couldn’t do the love job on its own. … Thrill signals that start in the lower brain are processed in the nucleus accumbens via not just dopamine but also serotonin and, importantly, oxytocin. If ever there was a substance designed to bind, it’s oxytocin. …
(Mothers with newborn babies are full of oxytocin, and fathers too. Oxytocin is the chemical of touch and tenderness.)
… The last major stops for love signals in the brain are the caudate nuclei, a pair of structures on either side of the head, each about the size of a shrimp. It’s here that patterns and mundane habits, such as knowing how to type and drive a car, are stored. Motor skills like those can be hard to lose, thanks to the caudate nuclei’s indelible memory. Apply the same permanence to love, and it’s no wonder that early passion can gel so quickly into enduring commitment. The idea that even one primal part of the brain is involved in processing love would be enough to make the feeling powerful. The fact that three are at work makes that powerful feeling consuming.
… Happily, romance needn’t come to ruin. Even irrational animals like ourselves would have quit trying if the bet didn’t pay off sometimes. The eventual goal of any couple is to pass beyond serial dating – beyond even the thrill of early love – and into what’s known as companionate love. That’s the coffee-and-Sunday-paper phase, that board-games-when-it’s-raining phase, and the fact is, there’s not a lick of excitement about it.
… That’s not to say that people can’t stay in love or that those couples who say they still feel romantic after years of being together are imagining things. Arthur Aron of State University, New York has conducted fMRI studies of some of those stubbornly loving pairs, and initial results show that their brains indeed look very much like those of people newly in love, with all the right regions lighting up in all the right ways. “We wondered if they were really feeling these things,” Aron says. “But it looks like this is really happening.”
Why don’t you complete the ‘Passionate Love Scale’, and then talk over your feelings and results with the woman of your dreams? Remember that love is something you do — you might need to celebrate Valentine’s Day more than once a year.
Yours for passionate love,