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This is your brain on love

When a person falls in love, a network of 12 regions of the brain are activated. The system is responsible for the emotion, reward, and intellectual stimulation of love.
When a person falls in love, a network of 12 regions of the brain are activated. The system is responsible for the emotion, reward, and intellectual stimulation of love.James Lewis, West Virginia University

Love may be felt in our heart and stomach, but the act of falling in love is driven by 12 specific regions of the brain and, in fact, is intellectually stimulating, according to brain imaging research.

"Your brain can be passionately in love before you know it," Stephanie Ortigue, an assistant professor psychology and neurology at Syracuse University in New York told me today.

That's because we can't "feel" activation in our brains the same way we feel our heart rate speeding up or butterflies dancing in our stomach at the sight of our beloved. Instead, the unconscious brain sends a signal to the body that says "'Hey, there is something going on here,'" she said.

These emotions can then feed back into the brain, generating a self-perpetuating cycle of love. In other words, love may be kick-started in the brain, but it's a two-way street between body and mind.

"People always asks me, what falls in love, is it the heart or the brain," Ortigue said. "And I like to answer that it's the person who falls in love."

Three brain systems

By analyzing brain scans of people falling in love, she and colleagues found that 12 areas of the brain work in tandem to release dopamine, oxytocin, adrenaline and vasopressin — chemicals that are associated with pleasure, trust and sexual arousal.

"It is a very specific network in the brain, and within this network we could say that there are three main systems that are activated," Ortigue said.

The first system is emotional, but love is more than pure fleeting emotions that last for minutes. The second system is the motivational system, the system that is activated when you expect rewarding experiences. This same system is activated when under the influence of cocaine.

"That's why some people believe that love is an addiction, because indeed love activates some areas of the brain that are involved in addiction," she noted.

But there is more to love than emotion and addiction. It is also a complex mental process. "It is very intellectual in a way. We have a real concept of love," she said. As proof of the mental taxation of love, consider the drawn-out healing process it takes to mend a broken heart. (Or is it really a broken brain?)

Soul minds?

Earlier research showed that the cognitive areas of the brain stimulated by love are related to self-image, which may explain the expressions of finding a "soulmate" and one's "better half," Ortigue noted.

This may also have implications for treating people who have a distorted self-image, or disorders such as anorexia. Treatment of the neurological self-image issues could lead to healthier relationships.

"We all know that when love doesn't go well, everything goes wrong," she said.

And on Valentine's Day, we all want to have that someone special to share a box of heart-shaped candy — or should that be brain-shaped candy instead?

Ortigue chuckled at the suggestion, then steered our conversation away from the shape of candy to a re-casting of how we identify our beloved. "Instead of saying we are soulmates, maybe it would be great to say we are soul minds."

You could try that line with your honey tonight, of one of these 14 other ways to find greater happiness in your love life.

The brain imaging research appears in the Journal of Sexual Medicine.

More stories on the science of love:

Check out this graphic from Scientific American for details on brain activation for romantic love and other flavors of affection.

John Roach is a contributing writer for Connect with the Cosmic Log community by hitting the "like" button on the Cosmic Log Facebook page or following's science editor, Alan Boyle, on Twitter (@b0yle).