A recent story in The Daily Mail explained how, when in the presence of or shown a picture of someone they were passionately in love with, most people have a fairly characteristic response. An important part of their brain – the frontal lobe – that governs their capacity to make rational judgements, seems to shut down. Since its publication the story, though it has not exactly gone viral, has been echoed by a large number of news sources all over the world, both online and in print. The ironical thing is that the research study on which this story is based was first published in September 2000, by Andreas Bartels and Semir Zeki. Obviously, it was not considered hot enough then to be reported, but with the increasing interest on the part of the general public in the findings of scientific research concerning love, sex and relationships, it’s evidently more saleable now.
The leader of this and several other such neurobiological studies, Prof Semir Zeki, is the author of several scholarly books on the visual brain (the most recent being The Splendours and Miseries of The Brain ), a Fellow of the Royal Society and the Professor of Neuroaesthetics (a discipline connecting science and art, that he pioneered) at the University College, London. He has done much path-breaking research on the relationship between the human brain on the one hand and beauty, art and love on the other. I understand he is scheduled to speak tomorrow on Neurobiology of Love and Beauty at the 25th Foundation Day Celebrations of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology at Hyderabad, and am sorry that I won’t be able to hear him there. But hopefully the Internet will make available the text of this talk soon enough.
Let’s try to understand what precisely Prof Zeki’s research threw up. By using the fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) technique, researchers can see which specific part of the brain is activated when we perform certain tasks, by assessing the oxygen flow to its component parts. Zeki and his co-workers studied the fMRI responses of 17 healthy male and female volunteers when they were shown pictures of their romantic partners compared to pictures of their friends. They found a distinctive difference between the way people responded to friends and to romantic partners. While both activated the expected areas in the brain that are associated with positive emotions, certain portions of the brain were significantly deactivated when pictures of the romantic partners were presented. Portions of the prefrontal cortex (which governs judgement and social behaviour) and middle temporal cortex (which regulates negative emotions) were deactivated, as is usually the case when we are happy. But, the more interesting finding was the deactivation of the amygdala which controls fear, sadness and aggression. Friends activated this part of the brain, but lovers deactivated it.
Other research has also established that people in love have some chemical changes in their brains as well. There is a surge of a neurotransmitter (chemical messenger in the brain) called Dopamine which gives us a feeling of euphoria. But there's also a depletion of another neurotransmitter called Serotonin, which is why we tend to feel easily anxious, jittery and depressed. There is also a deluge of adrenaline making our heart beat faster, our palms sweaty, and our mouths go dry in the presence of the one we love.
So, putting this all together, when in love, we temporarily take leave of our senses. We suspend rational judgement, we are fearless and we think only positive thoughts. We can swing between euphoria, anxiety and depression, within minutes. It’s almost like we’ve consumed a narcotic drug. And here’s the rub. Another interesting finding of the study was that the same portions of the brain that get activated by the narcotic drug cocaine are also activated by romantic love.
The biological explanation of all of this is that a temporary suspension of their judgement of each other is desirable to increase the likelihood of two human beings to reproduce. But in our country, we seem to be doing rather nicely without this. Which is probably the basis for the derogatory conclusion that love is blind. Or worse, that falling in love is the dumbest thing one can do. However, I suspect that this suspension of judgement is a very useful mechanism to ensure that love can sustain through the years and make for a lasting relationship. For most relationships break because we judge each other too harshly, based on our expectation that our partner should be perfect in order to cater to all our needs throughout our lives. I also suspect that if fMRIs were done on Indian mothers when it comes to their sons or Indian fathers when it comes to their daughters, a fair number of them might well show significantly deactivated prefrontal lobes.
As I write this, my wife and I have just completed 25 years of being married to each other, during which period we have kept our prefrontal cortices pretty busy – activating and deactivating them on a regular basis – to the point that they have pretty much given up now, and remain in a state of irreparable deactivation, thereby increasing the likelihood that we’re going to remain in a state of mutual happiness till death do us part.
Love may be blind. It may be dumb. But whatever anyone else says, there’s nothing quite like it.