The Science of Love: A Neuroethics Journal Club

Last week, the Core celebrated an early Valentine’s Day by breaking open a box of chocolates and engaging in a lively journal club discussion on Love. The paper, a seminal piece by Aron et. al (Reward, Motivation, and Emotion Systems Associated With Early-Stage Intense Romantic Love), set the stage for a rich exchange on topics ranging from the neurobiology of love and sex, to the rise of folk neuroscience and potential applications of a “love potion”.

The conversation opened with an anecdote from my experience as a research assistant at Stanford, where I worked in conjunction with Art Aron on a exploration of romantic love and analgesia (Younger et. al, in submission).

The story went something like this:

When I began working on the ‘love project,’ I was a nineteen year-old who, like most people of my age and generation, believed that romantic love was nothing short of supernatural. Raised on a steady diet of Disney Princess stories and bubblegum pop, my first exposure to the neurobiology of love was shocking and uncomfortable.

The body of scientific literature seemed to taunt me from the pages of PubMed. ‘Of course there is no cupid shooting arrows! Unless ‘cupid’ is a cute way of saying, “dopamine-rich areas associated with mammalian reward and motivation systems” (Aron et. al). Love happens in your brain!’ Not only that, the literature snickered, love is not special to your brain; it happens in everyone’s brains via roughly the same mechanism.

It was like finding out that ‘Santa’ is just your mom in a red bathrobe.

Although I was certainly disillusioned,  my discomfort ran deeper than the discovery of a tangible truth behind love’s mystery. Below are some of the questions that plagued me during my initial investigation, as well as a some of the journal club musings in response.

1)  A news review in Science states:  “brain imaging studies are taking some of the mystery out of love and sex.” Based on my anecdote this seems true, but here’s my question — Is there something wrong with solving culturally-significant mysteries? I mean, we discourage kids from revealing the truth behind Santa to their younger siblings.

Response: One major flaw in the Santa analogy is that it is black and white. One minute Santa is a mystery, the next, it is possible to fully understand what went on behind the scenes. With love, however, the mechanisms are much more complex. Although we have made some headway, we still cannot generalize across every individual, let alone every relationship.

The real problem, then, is the perception that the whole is equal to the sum of its parts. Because some of the underlying neuro-phenomena have been revealed, we believe that we possess a full understanding of the behavior.  False perception may result in ‘folk neuroscience’ explanations, which undermine both the scientific viewpoint and our innate conception of love.

2) Why do we want to explain things like love? Are we wasting valuable time, money and human resources, just for curiosity’s sake?

Response: Why do any science, if not for curiosity’s sake? Furthermore, an understanding of love will allow us to answer further questions about human behavior. Supplemental reading: love and pain (Master et. al, 2009), pair bonding (Walum et. al, 2008), recent literature review (Young, 2009).

3) Is part of our motivation for understanding love to eventually learn to control the direction, intensity and duration of our sentiments?

Response: What immediately comes to mind is the 2004 film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which presented an interesting scenario where a couple decides to end their relationship and ‘erase’ the love that they once shared. Although the ‘break-up pill’ could be a valuable innovation in some contexts, the Core seemed more excited by the prospect of a ‘love potion’. In particular, we were intrigued by the idea of a ‘love potion’ for use outside of the romantic context — perhaps finding some way to facilitate bonding between parents and adopted children.

Using methods refined by the growing field Experimental Philosophy, we hope to explore some of these concepts and questions. Stay tuned for future studies.

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5 thoughts on “The Science of Love: A Neuroethics Journal Club

  1. It’s interesting to see just how pervasive memory has become in our everyday lives. It’s like everywhere I turn, I see something with a card slot or USB port, lol. I guess it makes sense though, considering how cheap memory has become as of late…Ahhh, I shouldn’t be complaining. I can’t make it through a single day without my R4 / R4i!(Submitted from Nintendo DS running [url=http://www.leetboss.com/video-games/r4i-r4-sdhc-nintendo-ds]R4 SDHC[/url] NetBlog)

  2. As I read Helen Fisher’s work I experienced the same disillusionment, and I am 62, married and in one of those dopamine laden relationships where we love each other a lot, without too much anxiety, other than my 11 year old’s lack of attention to his homework. Are we stolid or serene or full of dopamine?

  3. I met a girl on a plane once. She was going to Chesterton. I just thought about her because I saw a picture of a girl with a red dress with white flowers and that is what she was wearing. So I ‘googled’ her and see that she is into some really interesting work. I would definitely like to hear some more. Aristophanes’ allegory in Plato’s Symposium always struck me as an interesting one. Although, I have read that it was intended more as a comedic farce, than a serious story as some of the others. It still brings to light the belief that there may be another half and that our longing for a mate is to be whole again. Or is it? But I’m way out of my league here. I’m just a graphic designer. 🙂

  4. Pingback: (Neuro)essentializing love | Neuroethics at the Core

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