Brain Study Reveals Secrets of Staying Madly in Love
What brain scans teach us about intense, long-term, passionate love.
Posted February 3, 2011 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
What's the secret to staying madly in love? Is it even possible to feel madly in love with someone after 5, 10, 20 years together?
Due to recent neurological research, we are a bit closer to answering these perplexing questions and demystifying the secrets behind achieving intense, lasting, romantic love.
A recent study published online in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, investigated, for the first time, which brain regions are associated with long-term romantic love.
Researchers compared the brain scans of long-term married individuals to the scans of individuals who have recently fallen in love. Surprisingly, the results revealed similar activity in specific brain regions for both long-term, intense romantic love and couples in early-stage romantic love. These particular brain regions could be the clue as to why certain couples stay madly in love years, even decades, later.
A group of researchers, led by Drs. Bianca Acevedo and Arthur Aron of the Department of Psychology at Stony Brook University, used functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to scan the brains of happily married individuals (10 women and 7 men) reporting intense romantic love for their partner after an average of 21 years of marriage.
The Characteristics of Intense Romantic Love
Intense romantic love typifies symptoms (common to being newly in love) including:
- Craving for union
- Focused attention
- Increased energy with the partner
- Motivation to do things that make the partner happy
- Sexual attraction and thinking about the partner when apart
The objective of the study was to investigate how brain system activity in individuals in a long-term intense passionate love compared to the brain system activity of individuals newly in romantic love.
In order to investigate these neural activity areas, participants, while in the fMRI, viewed facial images of their partners, as well as control images including a close friend, a highly-familiar acquaintance, and a low-familiar person. The brain activity of the participants viewing the facial images was then compared to the fMRI results of individuals in a previous experiment, who reported being madly in love with their partner within the past year.
Additionally, the neural activity of the participants reporting long-term romantic love was compared with results based on questionnaires they took measuring passion, obsession, closeness, friendship, inclusion of the partner in the concept of the self, and sexual frequency.
Researchers were interested in one brain region in particular, the ventral tegmental area (VTA). The VTA is of specific interest because it is a dopamine-rich reward system that has been reported in many studies of early-stage romantic love.
Being Madly in Love Can Last!
The results of the study indicate that the feeling of intense passion can last in long-term relationships. "We found many very clear similarities between those who were in love long-term and those who had just fallen madly in love," says Aron. "In this latest study, the VTA showed greater response to images of a long-term partner when compared with images of a close friend or any of the other facial images."
This means that the VTA is particularly active for romantic love. "Interestingly, the same VTA region showed greater activation for those in the long-term couple group who scored especially high on romantic love scales and a closeness scale based on questionnaires," Acevedo explains.
Previous studies have shown that activity in dopamine-rich areas, such as the VTA, are engaged in response to rewards such as food, money, cocaine, and alcohol. Additionally, studies have demonstrated the role of the VTA in motivation, reinforcement learning, and decision making. This research suggests that the VTA is important for maintaining long-term relationships and that intense romantic love commonly found in early-stage love can last through long-term relationships by engaging the rewards and motivation systems of the brain.
The results revealed many other fascinating findings, uncovering some keys to maintaining lasting love.
One thing that most couples wonder about is whether sexual frequency and interest can be maintained through long-term relationships. The answer is YES! The participants in long-term romantic love reported high sexual frequency. And higher sexual frequency was linked to activation in a particular brain region. This area is the very sexy left posterior hippocampus. Additionally, the results indicate that participants in long-term love, who scored high on scores measuring passion, showed greater activation in the posterior hippocampus.
Prior studies have shown neural activity in the posterior hippocampus of couples who have recently fallen madly in love. The results prove that the feelings of intensity, passion, and sexual desire, commonly found in early-stage love, can be maintained into long-term love. To understand how and why this is possible, we must first increase our understanding of the role of the posterior hippocampus. This is a bit tricky to do since little is known about this mysterious brain region.
Some studies have linked activation of the posterior hippocampus with hunger and food cravings, with higher neural activity in obese individuals. Other studies have shown that lesions in the hippocampus of rodents impair the ability to distinguish feeling hungry from feeling full. We know that the hippocampus is very important for memory. So, perhaps this area is important for remembering the stimuli associated with certain rewards.
Because the posterior hippocampus is related to feelings of cravings and satiating desires, this brain region can hold the key to understanding how some couples stay sexually interested and passionate in long-term relationships.
Closeness and Union
Romantic long-term love activates the dopamine-rich brain regions. The recruitment of this dopamine system, which controls reward and motivation, suggests that romantic love is a desire and a motivation to unite with another.
Additionally, during long-term love the activation of the dorsal striatum, the area of the brain involved in motor and cognitive control, suggests romantic love is a goal-directed behavior. Since romantic love is a desire for a union with another, behaviors such as wanting to be close to one's partner or do things to make the partner happy, are enacted to maintain closeness and union.
Often closeness with a partner is measured by the Inclusion of the Other in the Self (IOS) scale. In the study, the IOS scores of the participants were positively related to the areas in the brain involved in self-referential processing. This means that often closeness and union with another involves incorporating that person in our concept of our self.
The results of the study uncovered some fascinating findings on attachment. The brain scans of participants show that the same parts of the brain that are active for long-term romantic love have been known to be engaged for maternal attachment. These brain regions, such as the thalamus and the substantia nigra, have a high density of oxytocin and vasopressin receptors. Oxytocin and vasopressin receptors are interesting because they have been shown to regulate social behavior, monogamy, and bonding.
Feeling Safe and Secure
Another interesting finding that emerges from this research concerns the body's regulation of pain and stress and its relationship to romantic love. The research shows that certain areas of the brain, such as the dorsal Raphe, are activated in intense romantic love. The dorsal Raphe is involved in the body's response to pain and stress. Past research has suggested that the goal of the attachment system is to feel a sense of security. Research indicates that association with an attachment figure reduces pain and stress. What we can gather from this research is that feeling safe and secure is an important criterion in long-term intense romantic love.
Friendship-Based Love vs. Romantic Love
The research evidences a surprising difference between romantic love and friendship-based love. To understand these differences, we must first understand the distinction between "wanting" and "liking." Research has suggested that wanting and liking are two different motivations, which are mutually exclusive. The results of the study show that romantic/passionate love is associated with the dopamine-rich systems characteristic of wanting, while friendship-based love related to the brain areas high in opiates characteristic of liking. The data suggest that romantic love is a motivation or a drive based on wanting, focused on a specific target, rather than a feeling or emotion.
Long-Term Romantic Love vs. Early-Stage Love
While long-term romantic love exhibits patterns of neural activity similar to early-stage romantic love, the study shows that for long-term romantic love, many more brain regions are affected than in early-stage love. The brain scans reveal activity in the opioid and serotonin-rich brain regions, which was not active in early-stage love. These regions are involved in regulating anxiety and pain. This suggests that one pivotal distinction between long-term love and early-stage love is a sense of calmness, characteristic of the former.
Additionally, the study shows that unlike findings for newly in love individuals, long-term love shows activation in the brain regions associated with attachment and liking. As we have seen, liking is very important to friendship-based love. Thus, long-term romantic love that is both intense and close is sustained through the co-existence of wanting motivations and rewards, as well as through liking and attachment bonding. Previous studies have suggested that it can take almost two years to form enduring attachment bonds. This could explain why individuals newly in love do not reflect the same neural activity for liking and attachment as for individuals in long-term romantic love since bonds take time to develop.
So What Have We Learned?
From this study, we have learned that the neural activity of individuals in intense romantic long-term love share remarkable similarities to the neural activity of individuals newly in love. (Interesting.) We have learned that romantic love can be sustained in long-term relationships. (Phew, that's a relief!) And that intense, passionate long-term love is a dopamine-rich activity maintained by sustained rewards. (Come again?)
Okay. The key to understanding how to sustain long-term romantic love is to understand it a bit scientifically. Our brains view long-term passionate love as a goal-directed behavior to attain rewards. Rewards can include the reduction of anxiety and stress, feelings of security, a state of calmness, and a union with another. In long-term relationships, when we reference the self, we slowly incorporate our partner into our notion of our self. As we move from early-stage love to long-term love, our bond attachment grows. And when we perform actions that make our partner happy, we enhance and maintain the relationship by working towards our goal of sustaining the rewards aforementioned.
While we might be a way off before having an Idiot's Guide for Staying Madly in Love, at least we are one step closer. And, hey, just knowing that it's scientifically possible to stay intensely, madly, passionately in love year after year...after year...is pretty damn promising!
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Acevedo BP, Aron A, Fisher HE, Brown LL. (2011) Neural correlates of long-term intense romantic love. Social Cognition and Affective Neuroscience. doi: 10.1093/scan/nsq092 First published online: January 5, 2011