Follow your heart and not your head is a common adage, but scientists have recently been discovering the substantial role the brain plays in love. The pleasurable feelings that accompany love are so similar to those that accompany drugs that both result in brain activity in the same reward area of the brain.
These findings, presented in 2010 by Mona Xu as a part of her Ph.D. studies suggest that the brain is quite literally “on love.” As Dr. Arthur Aron, professor of psychology at Stony Brook University, explained, these feelings of love are so intense that Xu was investigating their role in countering drug addiction.
In a recent study by Xu, when heavy smokers who had recently fallen in love were deprived of tobacco and shown a picture of their partner, they reported a less intense craving for tobacco than when shown a neutral picture. Therefore, people in love have an easier time quitting smoking than their single counterparts because love satisfies the desire created by a drug addiction by stimulating the same part of the brain.
These positive feelings and brain activity remain consistent as a relationship grows, according to Dr. Aron, who was at the forefront of the study. Aron chuckled as he recounted the couples, some of which were still “all over each other” after 20 years of marriage.
After recruiting and interviewing couples that were in relationships for more than 20 years, Aron and his colleagues examined brain activity in the dopamine reward area using fMRI. They found that the reward center brain activity of those in long-term relationships is almost the same as the activity of those newly in love. This means that healthy love produces the same pleasurable feelings, regardless of how old the relationship is.
The brain also plays a substantial part in abandoning a monogamous relationship, as in the case of infidelity. Former Ph.D. student Irene Tsapelas studied this phenomenon by splitting people in relationships into two groups.
One group was made to feel that their lives were boring and the other group was made to feel that their lives were overwhelming. Both groups were then shown 10 pictures of attractive people of the opposite sex with a list of characteristics. After conducting a series of unrelated activities, those who felt their lives were boring remembered people with positive traits that their significant other did not have. Conversely, those who felt overwhelmed remembered traits their partner had. Therefore, excitement is vital to the healthiness of a relationship.
In another study by Aron and Tsapelas, they found that the amount of novel activities done at year seven of a relationship, predicted relationship satisfaction nine years later. Aron elaborated with, “exciting adventures can enhance and strengthen relationships as long as the activities are not stressful.” Trying a new coffee shop, attending a play, or going hiking are all suggestions Aron gave for keeping love new and lasting, because excitement keeps the brain interested. Therefore, the next time feelings of love flood your body, pay as much attention to your brain as you do your heart.