Why We Experience Romantic Love: An Interview with Neuroscientist Lucy Brown

Dr. Lucy Brown is currently a clinical professor in neurology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City. She also served as the director of the Laboratory for Functional Neuroanatomy and Movement Disorders for over 20 years — though admits that her greatest challenge was studying the neurophysiological basis of romantic love.

The difficulty was convincing others that studying something as personal, powerful, and subjective as love would actually be possible. “We did the study and tried to publish the paper,” she recalls. “The reviews that came back were hilarious and I really should have saved them, because some of the people said that there was no such thing as romantic love.”

And yet, these studies ended up pioneering what we now commonly refer to as the neuroscience of romantic love. The research proved to be relevant for studying other important aspects of human experience too: the neuroscience of drug addiction, suicide, and post-breakup depression.

Brain World recently had the pleasure of discussing with Dr. Brown the conundrum that is romantic love.

Brain World: When did you discover your interest in neuroscience, or science, in general?

Lucy Brown: I was in New York feeling very depressed after the death of a family member, so I went to a psychiatrist who gave me an antidepressant that totally changed my entire outlook on life. I said, “Wait a second! You mean a chemical can change the way I think so drastically? I have to find out more about this.” Although I was a philosophy major, once I had this experience I did something very daring for myself then, which was to take a course in physiological psychology at New York University. And I loved it.

BW: How did you get into studying the neurological basis of romantic love?

LB: It’s a classic pioneering story. Ten years ago, no one wanted to accept that you could study romantic love, and now it’s kind of its own field. I heard the term about two years ago and nearly fell to my knees! “What? Neuroscience of relationships?” So, it’s been a lot of fun and a lot of trouble.

It was just not a popular subject to study. At the time, people were looking into drug-induced euphoria, and I wanted to see natural euphoria. The magic of love seemed to me to be the best natural euphoria there is. Certainly we needed to know when someone was in that state. When I met Art Aron — who had been studying romantic love for years, and was coming up against terrible problems in getting money for research — I learned about something called the “passionate love scale,” which has been around since 1986. People had really looked at this and could quantify the feeling, in some way. I mean there was a number we could put to this, and I said, “Aha! I’m in.”

BW: How does one quantify love?

LB: It’s hard. There are many different kinds of love, and it’s very important that we studied early-stage intense romantic love. It is a very specific kind of love that changes lives. It’s when people fly from New York to San Francisco just to see somebody. People do amazing things when they are in these early stages of romantic love, when they can’t think of anything else. So, that’s the easier type of love to study really.

BW: Why?

LB: Every aspect of who you are is based on your brain physiology. One of the things that made me optimistic about doing this study from the very beginning was that I realized people would change their lives because of a feeling — a very strong feeling. It was obviously going to change some brain system activity, because if you change your life, it’s going to show up in the brain.

And so, for the purpose of our experiment the people who were in love were shown a picture of their romantic partner. They had to think about that person and the romantic times they had together. Not sex. The idea we had was that sex and romance were different. People can have sex without romance, and feel romance without sex. And when you are feeling attached to someone, that is different too.

You may think that everyone loves differently — that every person has a different response and that no two people can ever be the same. There are parts of the brain where no two people are the same, but there are some parts of the brain where we are all the same. They are these really primitive parts of the brain, parts that we share with other mammals.

Our original hypothesis was that romantic love is a developed form of a mammalian drive to pursue preferred mates. The data is pretty much consistent with this idea. Romantic love is an elaboration of what we see in other animals, other vertebrates. Birds have all kinds of behaviors that they engage in to try to attract a mate, and some birds mate for a lifetime. They still go off and have little affairs, but they’ll stick pretty much with one other bird. Swans do this. I have come to think of it now as a survival system. It’s a drive like hunger or thirst.

BW: Why don’t some people fall in love?

LB: That is a big question, which I cannot answer. Some people never experience romantic love. What happens very often, by the way, is that people don’t experience romantic love until they turn 60–65 years old. Then they’ve grown older, and maybe have been in a marriage before, but the spouse had died and suddenly, they fall in love for the first time.

I have no idea as to why it happens later in life when it could have happened earlier, but romantic love isn’t necessary for marriage — that’s for sure! It can help marriages tremendously, because people stay together and remember the romantic times. I know some people who say they’re in happy marriages, but insist that they didn’t fall in love and that they’ve never been in love. They seem to me to be completely normal people and emotionally intact, but I have no idea why.

BW: You say some people have never experienced romantic love, and that love is a drive and not a feeling. It’s an interesting paradox.

LB: Right, it’s a drive more than a feeling. We think of it as a feeling, but feelings come and go. The strict definition of an emotion is an expression you can see on a face. Things like anger, fear, or surprise. When you’re in love, emotions or feelings could be euphoric or anxious, or you can feel a little bit depressed. You have many feelings around romantic love — the core of romantic love is the goal of attaining an emotional union with the other person. But we know from the brain systems involved in rewards and motivation that the parts of the brain which are common to everyone were not consistent with classical emotion.

BW: How do you do the studies?

LB: We show a person (the brain) a picture of their romantic partner. The control is a picture of someone who they know but have no emotional feelings for. It has to be a familiar face. We had one person bring a picture of her doorman — only in New York would someone do that. So, when you do a functional MRI study, the signals we can get out of the brain are very small. It is a tall miracle that we can get signals from the brain from an awake, behaving human at all. You don’t compare a group of people in love to a group of people who are not in love. You compare the response of how one person reacts to someone they love versus someone they don’t love (that’s just a familiar face).

One of the problems though, is that you’re asking people to look at a picture of their romantic partner for 20 seconds and think romantic thoughts, and then you’re asking them to cut that feeling off and look at another face and just feel neutral. The problem is that the person could still be thinking of their partner, so how do you cut off that romantic feeling? A great way to cut it off (this is a practical note for people who want to cut off a romantic feeling) is to count backwards by seven from a large number like 2011.

So, we alternatively showed the subjects a picture of their romantic partner, and then a number like 2011. The instructions were to then count back by seven. After this, they were shown a picture of the neutral person (emotionally neutral), for 20 seconds. They either recall memories of that person, or just keep looking at their face. Then we had them do the counting backwards task, and then had them look at a picture of their romantic partner again, and so on.

The person is in that scanner doing that task for about 15 minutes. We also collect an anatomical scan, and then merge the anatomical data with the functional data from the scanner. You are inducing these feelings of romance in a person and then you’re comparing those feelings of romance to feelings of another neutral person.

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