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Love & lust: it's a chemical romance

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Centuries after William Shakespeare asked, 'What is love?', brain imaging studies are allowing scientists to give at least a partial answer. New studies show love is in the mind - a complex emotion triggered by 12 specific areas of the brain. These areas form the network of love, write Todd Lindeman and Alberto Cuadra.

Potent potion ... falling head over heels in love happens in three phases - lust, attraction and emotional attachment.

Potent potion ... falling head over heels in love happens in three phases - lust, attraction and emotional attachment.

The network of love

The logical side

The outer area of the brain helps determine awareness, perception, reasoning and judgment.  This is the area that makes us feel that our partner makes us whole.  It is the area that helps us focus on one partner while ignoring all others and helps us understand a partner’s intentions.

The relay station

The thalamus, a large mass of gray matter in the core of the brain, is like Central Station — an impulse relaycentre at the heart of the love network.

What do scientists hope to learn?

Neuroscientists are studying the brain to gain a better understanding of how the network of love may provide doctors, psychologists and other therapists with new treatments or medicines for those who suffer from disorders associated with dysfunctional relationships, love addiction, love deprivation, unrequited love, rejection or loneliness.

The emotional side

Deep inside the brain, a complex set of structures in and around the limbic system is responsible for our emotions. This pleasure-and-reward area plays a role in how we feel, how we express what we feel and in the formation of both good and bad memories.

When times are great this area is flooded with the chemical dopamine. Whether you are enjoying a good meal, running a five-kilometre race or giving a dozen long-stemmed roses to your loved one, the euphoria generated in these feel-good areas compels us to repeat the behaviour.

Are there different types of love?

Yes. In the past decade, scientists have conducted neuroimaging studies on passionate love (between beloved ones), companionate love (between friends), maternal love and unconditional love (love of others without expecting anything in return). These studies show which regions of the brain are activated by different types of love. For a person who is madly in love, for example, areas of the brain associated with enjoyment, reward, desire and euphoria are highly active.

Falling head over heels in love happens in three phases: lust, attraction and emotional attachment. During each phase, different chemicals released in the brain can elicit the best and worst from a lover: obsession, cravings, anxiety, attentiveness, aggression.

"Romantic love is one of the most addictive substances on Earth," says biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, a member of the Centre for Human Evolution Studies at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

The Washington Post