London, June 4: Can science help us understand love'
Many argue that a Shakespearean sonnet, Rachmaninov piano sonata or Jane Austen novel is much better at communicating insights into why we become irresistibly drawn to one person. But now neuroscience promises to offer new insights that could solve some of the mysteries at the heart of love.
A study of whether there are different forms of love has been launched by Dr Andreas Bartels and Prof. Semir Zeki from the Wellcome Department of Neuroimaging at University College London. They have attempted to unravel for the first time whether the love between a parent and a child is the same as the emotion shared by lovers and whether all forms of intense attachments are basic variations on the same theme.
The tender intimacy and selflessness of a motherís love might be celebrated by inspiring music, literature and art.
But the evolutionary biologist has a more prosaic formulation ó the lifelong commitment serves to help a parentsí genetic material survive through to future generations. The passion shared by two lovers serves a surprisingly similar function óit facilitates mating and parenting ó and hence again is merely the selfish gene in action. If we didnít love, the species would simply never get perpetuated, so maybe that is loveís actual function.
But if all love boils down to, according to science, a genetic prerogative being pursued through hard wiring in our brains, then the neurological basis of love, like the brain activity and hormonal responses which underpin love, should theoretically share similar biological underpinnings.
To investigate this question, Bartels and Zekimeasured brain activity in 22 mothers who viewed pictures of their own infants and compared this with activity evoked by viewing pictures of other infants with whom they were acquainted for the same period.
In addition, they compared this activity to that when other volunteers viewed their partner, a best friend and an adult acquaintance to further control for familiarity and friendly feelings.
The design of the experiment, using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging, and just published in the journal Neuroimage, allowed the scientists to determine the brain activation related to maternal and romantic love while at the same time controlling for the effects of familiarity and merely friendly feelings.
The first intriguing finding is that there is a lot of overlap between the brain areas activated during feelings of romantic love and maternal love . The brain cells implicated are the same as those when we consume food and drink we like, take drugs like cocaine, and when we are given monetary rewards. So love is indeed like a drug.
However, the key result was that itís not just that certain shared areas of the brain are reliably activated in both romantic and maternal love, but also particular locations are deactivated which is perhaps most revealing about love. Among other areas, parts of the pre-frontal cortex -- a bit of the brain towards the front and implicated in social judgment ó seem to get switched off when we are in love and when we love our children, as do areas linked with the experience of negative emotions .
The results, conclude Bartels and Zeki, suggest that you are pulled along by the strong sense of reward you feel when you love. But you are also pushed by a tendency not to objectively see faults in the other person which might threaten love. So love really is blind and there is a biological basis for the blindness.