Of Love and Neuroscience

For Valentine’s Day, let’s examine what neuroscience has learned about love.

First, love can be measured. In 1986, Elaine Hatfield, a psychologist at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, and Susan Sprecher, a sociologist at Illinois State University Normal, came up with the Passionate Love Scale that psychologists and neuroscientists still use today. It’s based on a questionnaire that asks about obsessive thoughts, physical reaction to being touched by the beloved, feelings experienced in the presence of the beloved, and feelings toward being left by the beloved.

Hatfield and Sprecher tested the Passionate Love Scale by administering its questionnaire to college students in romantic relationships. At the same time they also administered a questionnaire about sexual desire and a questionnaire for a Love Scale developed by social psychologist Zick Rubin in 1970. The Passionate Love Scale correlated well with both measures of sexual desire and Rubin’s Love Scale, which is why it’s considered to be a reliable measurement tool. If you want to measure yourself or your Valentine, an online quiz version of the Passionate Love Scale can be found here.

Second, being passionately in love has some similarity to being addicted to cocaine. That is to say that all six fMRI studies done to measure romantic love in the last 10 years found that thinking about the beloved activated the dopaminergic-related brain areas (more about what dopaminergic is here and here). Of course, those areas get activated by many things, but one of the most attention-grabbing is cocaine.

Third, the difference between passionate romantic love and other kinds of love, like maternal love or the unconditional love one may feel for an intellectually disabled relative, exists and can be measured by fMRI. There is a 2010 review article written to examine this difference. But if you want to know what this difference is exactly, the best the review article can do is say that “different types of love involve distinct cerebral networks, including those for higher cognitive functions such as social cognition and bodily self-representation.” And perhaps we suspected that already.

So, I hope you have a Happy Valentine’s Day! And if you want to know even more about love, pick up a good novel. That kind of literature, as far as love and its attendant emotional turmoil are concerned, is still far ahead of the neuroscience literature.