Brain Pickings

This Is Your Brain on Love

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Why love is not an emotion and how obsessive thinking begets romantic joy.

Love is a complicated beast. And despite the ownership with which centuries of literature and art and music have claimed romance, there’s actually quite a bit of science of in it. Love, in fact, is as much a product of the heart as it is of the brain — a combination of neurochemistry and storytelling, the hormones and neurotransmitters that make us feel certain emotions, and the stories we choose to tell ourselves about those emotions.

Today, we turn to biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, who studies the evolution of human emotions and the intricacies of the brain in — and on — love. Fisher explores the science of love without losing a sense of romance, shedding light on some of the complex ways in which the brain and the heart diverge.

If you can stomach the geekines, there’s actually a wealth of insight in this talk Dr. Fisher gave at the American Psychiatric Association’s Sex, Sexuality and Serotonin conference in 2004, brilliantly synthesized here, in which she argues — with solid scientific evidence and from a rich interdisciplinary perspective — that antidepressants may jeopardize romantic love.

Why? Love, Fisher points out, is not an emotion — it’s “a motivation system, it’s a drive, it’s part of the reward system of the brain.” It’s typically characterized by high dopamine and norepinephrine, but also by low serotonin, which is responsible for the obsessive thinking attached to romantic love — something Fisher confirmed in her fMRI studies. But serotonin-enhancing antidepressants blunt the emotions, including that precious elation of romance that is necessary to the growth and perseverance of romantic love.

Serotonin-enhancing antidepressants also suppress obsessive thinking, which is a very central component of romantic love.” ~ Helen Fisher

Dr. Fisher offers three key components of love, involving different but connected brain systems:

  • Lust — driven by androgens and estrogens, the craving for sexual gratification
  • Attraction — driven by high dopamine and norepinephrine levels and low serotonin, romantic or passionate love, characterized by euphoria when things are going well, terrible mood swings when they’re not, focused attention, obsessive thinking, and intense craving for the individual
  • Attachment — driven by the hormones oxytocin and vasopressin, the sense of calm, peace, and stability one feels with a long-term partner

She goes on to point out that serotonin-enhancing antidepressants also inhibit other evolutionary adaptive mechanisms for mate selection, such as orgasm.

With orgasm, one of the main things that happens is that levels of oxytocin and vasopressin go up enormously in the brain. These are feel-good chemicals. They’re associated with social bonding, pair formation, and pair maintenance. So when men and women take serotonin-enhancing medications and fail to achieve orgasm, they can fail to stimulate not only themselves, but their partners as well. This neural mechanism, associated with partner attachment, becomes a failed trigger.” ~ Helen Fisher

Fisher cites a case study of a 35-year-old married woman who had recurrent depression and anxiety disorder. When on serotonin-enhancing medication, she found her libido diminished, which made her unable to orgasm. Incapable to think critically, she made an emotional leap to assume that this meant she no longer loved her husband, deciding to divorce him. When cycled off the medication, the woman slowly regained her normal sex drive and her ability to connect with her husband, leaving behind not him but the idea of the divorce.

Like drugs that blur your vision, serotonin-enhancing medications can potentially blur a woman’s ability to evaluate mating partners, to fall in love, and to sustain an enduring partnership.” ~ Helen Fisher

To be sure, Fisher is careful to point out that she is not discouraging serotonin-enhancing medication for severely depressed patients who are a threat to their own lives. But she does point to a cost-benefit ratio that skews in disfavor of love in all but the most severe of cases — the few cases in which the choice is between love and life itself.

I’m going to say it again: we are not recommending that patients who are seriously psychologically ill refrain from taking serotonin-enhancing antidepressants. What we’re trying to say is that these medications affect the threshold of other biologic mechanisms and at times can jeopardize unconscious evolutionary mechanisms for mate selection, for romantic love, and for attachment.” ~ Helen Fisher

The irony, of course, is that in our quest to manage pain, we often end up denying ourselves joy, medicating away the unsettling and in the process washing away the very aliveness in which love lives. Which begs the question, if love is not really what our brain dictates or our body demands, then what is it?

For more fascinating insight on the subject, we highly recommend two of Fisher’s books: Anatomy of Love and Why We Love.

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