Tuesday, November 16, 2010

How Do I Love Thee? Let me check my MRI

Different types of love feel different. The love I have for my partner, my children, my parents, and even my dog are similar in some ways, but are very distinct in others. Thanks to fMRI images of the brains of people experiencing various types of love, scientists can now explain where the similarities and differences originate.

The topic isn't a new one in sexuality research circles. A Rutgers study comparing maternal and romantic love, which produced the image above, took place in 2004. The study showed that there are distinct parallels in brain activity between people experiencing the two types of love. A number of researchers turned to fMRI and other brain imaging techniques years earlier in hope of finding ways to identify the brain activity characteristic of sexual deviants like rapists and pedophiles, potentially to both reform them and prosecute them, as the case may be.

But the brain is complex. It's proven too difficult to tease out sexual criminals from the general population in a reliable way. However, a recent review paper that compares all known fMRI studies of brains in love has at least brought a few interesting aspects to light.

For one thing, love is complicated. Regardless of the type of love we're talking about, they all involve several distinct portions of the brain, including the higher-order portions typical of big brained creatures like humans. That suggests that love as we know it may not even be possible for creatures with less developed brains. Lizards and birds, it seems, are probably limited to friend-with-benefits sorts of relationships, rather than full blown love.

Not only can we love, but researchers have specifically studied three different types of love: romantic love between sexual partners, maternal love between a mother and child, and compassionate love for vulnerable strangers. All three types lead to increased blood flow, and presumably activity, in the reward portions of the brain that turn on with euphoric feelings of well being and comfort that come with orgasm, intense physical exertion, using cocaine, or being in the presence of someone we care deeply about.

In addition, both romantic and maternal love appear to reduce activity in the regions affecting anxiety while boosting activity in the portions associated with memory and happiness. There are some important differences between the two, though. For one thing romantic love switches on brain regions that are associated with self perception. At the same time, it turns off the regions that are associated with grief and loss following a relationship break-up. In other words, romance boosts self perception while helping you deal with your broken heart from your previous relationships. The best cure for a failed relationship, appropriately enough, is a new relationship.

Maternal love involves a portion of the brain that helps us tolerate physical pain. That's important, the researchers speculate, both in getting women through the trauma of birth labor and for comforting those occasional childhood booboos. That's right, momma's kiss on your bruised knee is no mere placebo - it actually changes the amount of pain you feel, according to the fMRI images.

Compassionate love for strangers is more like maternal love than romance. The interesting thing is that when test subjects were asked to intentionally stir up feelings of love for strangers, even though they were just watching videos of disabled people, the elderly, and other vulnerable folks, it reduced pain and anxiety in the test subjects themselves. It seems that loving your fellow humans isn't simply altruistic, it also makes you feel good.

None of this comes as much of a surprise, but the fMRI review can be summed up like this; if your self esteem is low or your reeling from a broken heart, a new romance will fix you up; if you fall down and go boom (or are recovering from surgery, suffering chronic pain, etc.), a hug from momma or a momma-like figure in your life can help ease the physical pain as well as making the momma figure feel better; and if you're having a bad day and just need a boost, sit on a bench, watch the people go by, and compel yourself to love them - they may be none the wiser, but you'll feel better.

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