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Brains in love

When you're attracted to someone, is your gray matter talking sense -- or just hooked? Scientists take a rational look.

July 30, 2007|Susan Brink | Times Staff Writer

HER front brain is telling her he's trouble. Look at the facts, it says. He's never made a commitment, he drinks too much, he can't hold down a job.

But her middle brain won't listen. Man, it swoons, he looks great in those jeans, his black hair curls onto his forehead so adorably, and when he drags on a cigarette, he's so bad he's good.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday August 02, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 46 words Type of Material: Correction
Love: An article in Monday's Health section on the biology of falling in love misquoted Katharine Hepburn's character in the movie "On Golden Pond" as saying (of Henry Fonda's character), "He's my knight in shining armor." The correct quote is, "You're my knight in shining armor."
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday, August 06, 2007 Home Edition Health Part F Page 9 Features Desk 1 inches; 47 words Type of Material: Correction
Love: An article in last week's Health section on the biology of falling in love misquoted Katharine Hepburn's character in the movie "On Golden Pond" as saying (of Henry Fonda's character), "He's my knight in shining armor." The correct quote is, "You're my knight in shining armor."

His front brain is lecturing, too: She's flirting with every guy in the place, and she can drink even you under the table, it says. His mid-brain is unresponsive, distracted by her legs, her blouse and her come-hither stare.

"What could you be thinking?" their front brains demand.

Their middle brains, each on a quest for reward, pay no heed.

Alas, when it comes to choosing mates, smart neurons can make dumb choices. Sure, if the brain's owner is in her 40s and has been around the block a few times, she might grab her bag and scram. If the guy has reached seasoned middle age, he might think twice about that cleavage-baring temptress. Wisdom -- at least a little -- does come with experience.

But if the objects of desire are in their 20s, all bets are off. A lot will depend on the influence of Mom and Dad's marriage, the gossip and urgings of friends, and whether life experience has convinced these two brains that what they're looking at is attractive. She just might sidle over to Mr. Wrong and bat her eyes. And he could well give in to temptation.

And so the dance of attraction, infatuation and ultimately love begins.

It's a dance that holds many mysteries, to psychologists as well as to the willing participants. Science is just beginning to parse the inner workings of the brain in love, examining the blissful or ruinous fall from a medley of perspectives: neural systems, chemical messengers and the biology of reward.

It was only in 2000 that two London scientists selected 70 people, all in the early sizzle of love, and rolled them into the giant cylinder of a functional magnetic resonance imaging scanner, or fMRI. The images they got are thought to be science's first pictures of the brain in love.

The pictures were a revelation, and others have followed, showing that romantic love is a lot like addiction to alcohol or drugs. The brain is playing a trick, necessary for evolution, by associating something that just happened with pleasure and attributing the feeling to that magnificent specimen right before your eyes.

All animals mate: The most primitive system in the brain, one that even reptiles have, knows it needs to reproduce. Turtles do it but then lay their eggs in the sand and head back to sea, never seeing their mate again.

Human brains are considerably more complicated, with additional neural systems that seek romance, others that want comfort and companionship, and others that are just out for a roll in the hay.

Yet the chemistry between two people isn't just a matter of molecules careening around the brain, dictating feelings like some game of neuro-billiards. Attraction also involves personal history. "Our parents have an effect on us," says Helen Fisher, evolutionary anthropologist at Rutgers University who studies human attraction. "So does the school system, television, timing, mystery."

Every book ever read, and every movie ever wept through, starts charting a course toward the chosen one.

--

The love dance

"Love," that one small word, stands for a hodgepodge of feelings and drives: lust, romance, passion, attachment, commitment and contentment. Studying this brew is made harder because the pathways aren't totally distinct. Lust and romance, for example, have some overlapping biology, even though they are not the same thing.

Similarly, the dance that leads, if we're lucky, to a stable commitment moves through several key steps.

First comes initial attraction, the spark. If someone's going to pick one person out of the billions of opposite-sex humans out there, it's this step that starts things rolling.

Next comes the wild, dizzying infatuation of romance -- a unique magic between two people who can't stop thinking about each other. The brain uses its chemical arsenal to focus our attention on one person, forsaking all others.

"Everyone knows what that feels like. This is one of the great mysteries. It's the love potion No. 9, the click factor, interpersonal chemistry," says Gian Gonzaga, senior research scientist at eHarmony Labs.

The passion lasts for at least a few months, two to four years tops, says relationship researcher Arthur Aron, psychologist at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

As it fades, something more stable takes over: the steady pair-bonding of what's called companionate love. It's a heartier variety, characterized by tenderness, affection and stability over the long haul. Far less is known about the brains of people celebrating their silver anniversaries or more, but researchers are beginning to recruit such couples to find out.

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