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Scientists on a mission to unravel the chemistry of love

Washington, Feb. 12: Philosophers and poets, put down your pens. Scientists are studying the chemistry of love. And their findings are helping unravel age-old questions about attachment, obsession, craving and attention, behaviours that take over when people are in the throes of romance.

“Kings give up their thrones for love,” said Lucy Brown, a neuroscientist at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York who decided to research romantic love, which she calls “a wonderful example of long-term focused attention.”

Biologically, it wouldn’t be advantageous to remain in the first stages of love — infatuation — too long, Brown said. She’s been working with colleagues at Stony Brook and Rutgers universities to capture this state on a brain scan. “It’s too intense,” she added. “People wouldn’t be able to get anything done.”

The scientists recruited 17 Stony Brook students who defined themselves as being in the earliest stages of love, those hot and heady days when people spend most of their time obsessively thinking and doing for one another. They used an imaging technique to compare brain activity when the students gazed at their lovers and when they looked at a picture of a good friend.

They recently analysed the results but are reluctant to talk about the findings until they have been published.

But Brown believes that they have captured that “ain’t no mountain high enough” place in the brain. Many of the circuits that are activated when people look at their soulmates are deep in the limbic, or emotional centres.

“In some ways, I was surprised how restricted (the response in the brain) is,” Brown said. “The parts of the brain that involve unconscious processes-like movement are heavily involved with strong feelings of love.”

So remember, the next time you fall head over heels, to whisper these sweet words: medial insula, anterior cingulate, basal ganglia. These are the regions that were recently identified by British scientists who conducted a similar study. They also recruited people who had been “madly in love,” but for years, not months.

Brown said many of the same regions are involved, but she added that her team has found another nugget of brain tissue that is uniquely active during the earlier, infatuation stage, suggesting that the brain is shaped, and reshaped, by the experience of love.

Which makes perfect sense to Stony Brook psychology professor Arthur Aron, a co-investigator in the brain scan study with Brown and Helen Fisher, a Rutgers anthropologist who studies love and attachment. Aron has spent decades dissecting relationships — how people choose one another, what it means to be close to another person, intense attractions, and more recently, what people do to maintain that closeness.

Aron’s latest contribution to love may be the notion that even happily committed people get bored with each other, and relationships last when time is spent on challenging, novel activities. That’s not just more time going to the movies together, he explains, but shared, novel experiences that more closely bond people together.

After analysing events that made 60 couples happy, Aron, who conducts a lot of his research with his wife, psychologist Elaine Aron, and their colleagues instructed the couples to spend 1.5 hours a week on an activity they rated as exciting and novel. Over 10 weeks, those who did novel activities rated their relationships much closer compared with those who spent time together in merely enjoyable activities.

“There were dramatic changes in love,” said Aron. The couples in the study had been married for 10 to 15 years. “Spending more time doing ordinary things doesn’t make relationships any better,” he said. “It could even make it worse.” It accentuates the boredom, he added.

Aron is now expanding his studies to include love and friendship between people who belong to different social groups.

Even scientists who work with primates will attempt to put love under the microscope. Frans de Waal, director of the Living Links Center at Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory University in Atlanta, is developing a study to test an evolutionary perspective on the emotional prerequisites for love.

“There has been so little research about altruism and the benefits of love [not limited to romantic love],” Post said. Fisher, the Rutgers anthropologist who has developed her theory that there are three stages of love — lust, passion and attachment — says that breaking down the chemistry of love has led to new ways of thinking about it.

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