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The Science of Romance

Paul Grobstein's picture

Welcome to the on-line forum associated with the 2008 senior seminar in Neural and Behavioral Sciences at Bryn Mawr and Haverford Colleges.  Its a way to keep conversations going between course meetings, and to do so in a way that makes our conversations available to other who may in turn have interesting thoughts to contribute to them.  

Thoughts this week about 

and our conversation based on them ...
JaymElaine's picture

My Thoughts on Love

Last week was a really interesting discussion on the science of love and romance. We not only talked about the psychological and behavioral acts of love, but we also talked about some possible biological acts/definitions for love; as a biology major, I can definitely appreciate that!

Stemming off this idea that being in love is as much a biological happening as it is a behavioral happening, can we also explain "falling out of love" as in biological concepts as well? I thought that this was quite interesting to talk about last week. It has been suggested that falling in love is a biological/chemical process within the brain and involves having just the right amount of receptors for adequate transduction by this biological/chemical process. Do we then use this same model to talk about people falling out of love? Do the receptors decrease in number, and thus give us scientists a biological reason that coincides with the behavioral act of falling out of love? I was wondering that. It was suggested by last week’s visiting professor that falling out of love is a result of the parties involved becoming bored with the relationship, that the parties involved found each other and stuck with each other because each one found something unique and novel about the other person and after some time, the novelty goes away, boredom arises, and falling out of love becomes inevitable. Although this explanation makes much sense to me, I still wondered what the varying degrees of brain activity over this course of time would tell us about a biological reasoning for falling out of love.

I also found it extremely interesting to talk about the different sections of the brain that were both activated and deactivated when one sees his/her loved one. Most interestingly to me, both the amygdala and the pre-frontal cortex region are deactivated. The amygdala is the sub-cortical region of the brain that controls our sense of fear and perhaps sadness as well. This does make sense; when I see someone that I am in love with, I do not approach him with fear. The pre-frontal cortex, on the other hand, controls a lot of our planning, decision-making, and basic overall rational thinking. This is deactivated?! Wow, no wonder I made so many idiotic decisions in some of my past relationships! This explains it all; and now when my mom pokes fun at me and tells about my past puppy love situations, I can quickly come back with "But my pre-frontal cortex was deactivated, it wasn’t my fault!"

Speaking of this, have there been any court cases in the past, or present, that have used this biological model as a means for a defendant pleading not guilty by reason of insanity in a murder trial? I wonder.  


Jayme E. Hopkins, '08

Ian Morton's picture

feelings of love

As noted early on in our discussion, love, as a subjective and internal state, is hard to define objectively. Not only can love take on various forms (e.g. romantic love, companionate love), but as Natsu points out, definitions/understandings of “love” can vary across cultures. Since defining love is done post-hoc, in an attempt to apply language to a set of internal feelings to which we have no direct conscious access, it makes sense that we would arrive at more than a singular definition/understanding. However, despite the variations between definitions of love, I believe there exists a general category of feelings (that we may call love) that exist prior to definition, which are commonly experienced amongst the majority of humanity. The existence of such a general category of feelings is suggested by our ability to empathetically understand what someone means when they say they are in love or that they love their friend.

I would like to extend this discussion to suggest that the generality of a category of feelings which constitute “love” is supported by its evolutionary adaptiveness. That is, if “love” has been selected for amongst humans, it logically follows the majority of humans would experience the feelings associated with love. So here we must ask if “love” could be shown to be evolutionarily favorable. Throughout this forum discussion the evolutionary adaptiveness of love has been challenged (Jenna) and supported (Danielle, Kara), and I would like to support the possibility of the evolutionary advantage of love.

As we have briefly touched on, emotions may play a critical role in the “rational” processes such as decision-making. According to Demasio’s Somatic-Marker Hypothesis, emotionally salient representations that have been paired with events from one’s past are employed to increase the efficiency of decision-making by ruling out those decisions that would likely result in negative feelings and highlighting those that would result in positive feelings. Love, which gives rise to positive feelings (i.e. dopamine reward) can thus serve as an influential guide in the decision-making process. That is, by feeling love towards one’s family and friends, one would likely arrive at decisions to assist these people more readily and rapidly. Feelings of love towards between a mother and child could allow to mother to respond to her child’s needs (e.g. saving the child from a predator at the risk of one’s own safety) without having to take time to consciously deliberate between the pros and cons of doing so. Feelings of love allow one to quickly and non-consciously decide to assist those individuals who play important roles in one’s own life and who contribute to one’s survival/the survival of one’s genetic lineage. For this reason it seems that love offers an evolutionary advantage.
tlogan's picture


Okay, I know there has been some dispute about whether or not “Love” should be researched as a science, but truth be told, I don’t want to touch that. Frankly, my opinion is if there is interest in the scientific community as well as the money to fund research, let them research! However there are some sub-aspects relating to attraction that I would be very interested in finding the basis of, primarily the neurobiological bases that underlie attraction. Also interesting to investigate would be as Liz mentioned in an earlier note: what is the biological basis for becoming accustomed to our partners? (Sidenote: I, like Emily, simply want the “answer” and for me this is generally the biological basis behind what we do.) And as Elliot addressed in his post: could we reduce the way we feel about someone to neurotransmitter release or an enzyme cascade? If we were to reduce these complex emotions into their biological constructs, what could we do with this information? Could we develop drugs to cure the pain post break-up, or use agonists to enhance the way we feel about someone? Essentially, we could alter our current paradigm of love; change it from something to be aspired, to make it something as mundane as a duty to be performed.



Something that I found to be perplexing was the idea, which Professor Le brought up, that we are not monogamous by nature. What then is the primary purpose of marriage? Does it benefit us or the species in a specific way so much so that we need it for our continued survival? I asked a question in class about the rates of break-up of long-term cohabiting couples for a reason-I am interested in whether they naturally assume the characteristics of married couples, in that they have the same strong commitments despite the lack of a legally binding relationship. It seems to me that though they have a lessened legal investment, would bonds of trust be more lasting because of the conscious decision to abstain from marriage? (I apologize if that did not make sense.) Does strong emotional commitment make or break a relationship, or is it all based on the exchange of investments?


On a final note, I find the results obtained by Ben and Amelia a bit humorous, a bit of a “keeping up with the Joneses” of relationships. Perhaps when we view our relationship as better than those around us, we downgrade the quality of our alternatives, as we view other local relationships as possibilities of what our relationship might be like. The better these relationships look to us, the less positively we view our relationships, and thus we are less likely to stay in it. Just a thought.

Amelia's picture

Some Thoughts on Love

I also wanted to thank everyone for a great discussion last week. Our conversation went in many different directions, all of which where very interesting. I find the vole studies looking at monogamy in animal models to be fascinating, and hopefully a few more people can appreciate their worth after last week. While they are not perfect models, especially since we as a species are not monogamous, I think the vasopressin and oxytocin systems and their interaction with dopamine reward systems offers us a look at what bonding is. To me, love can be qualified as an addiction, as someone pointed out in class, because of the symptoms of withdraw that you go through when it ends. Also, as Gillian said, the reward system helps to explain why you can ‘fall out of love’ and why maybe we are actually in love with the things associated with our partner and not our partner himself/herself.

I think this idea about being in love with activities with your partner and not your partner is very interesting and I can see how it may be true (and why it may not be). To address some of the questions that Elliot raises, I think that the bonding between family members that we refer to as love is not because of co-occurring activities, but something more innate. I could argue, though, that passionate, and even companion love, could be because of activities you do with your partner. Take sex as an example. We often have sex because it feels good, and we would want to continue doing so with our partner. However, over time couples have less sex and often the reason is said to be because they don’t feel like they need to anymore or because it’s just not as exciting. If we look at this in relation to the voles, maybe the bonding takes place during such sexual activities and then the same thing doesn’t satisfy anymore, so couples need to find other activities that are as rewarding. I could also argue how this may not be the case, but I’ll save that for another day.

Something curious that I didn’t bring up in class is a result Ben and I saw in the meta-analysis I did with him a few summers ago. Along with commitment, the highest predictor of relationships staying together was ‘positive allusions’, basically meaning that if you thought your relationship was better than others on many different aspects you were more likely to stay with your partner. How does this tie into our thoughts on love? I’m not sure what the neural mechanisms behind this might be, but it’s an interesting result. Perhaps people in such relationships have their reward systems working overtime and are not experiencing the habituation to their partner like other people are.

I wanted to return shortly to the idea that Dr. Grobstein brings up about the ‘science of love’ being an area of research that many different scientists can come together on. I think any topic that is able to bring different disciplines together causes stronger research to be done and deeper questions to be answered. While it is probable that the group of researchers looking at love stems from the public’s interest in such research (as we can see in our class), it still enables us to expand the literature in many different directions. I think scientists should continue to look at ‘love’, not just because of this true interaction between the disciplines, but also because the questions are important for human social societies.

atuttle's picture

Understanding love does not mean you can't enjoy it!


First of all I would like to thank everyone for their thoughtful discussion both in class and in the forum. Our group set out to pick an ambiguous concept like love for the very reason that it would spark a great deal of debate about the tie-in between environment, psychology, and biology. I’d like to start by addressing the concern that some of you have expressed in terms of science “demystifying” or “dissecting” the concept of love. I personally believe that a person can strive to understand the interplay between the environmental and biological factors that underlie a specific cognitive or emotional state while simultaneously enjoying it! As we have seen, both in our own experiences and over the course of discussion, love is by its very nature an irrational and capricious emotion. And while science is making strides to understand the underlying framework upon which love is based, the end product can still take your breath away. To use another example, I spent a semester learning about the science of rollercoasters. I now know that gravity, track angles, breaks, etc. contribute to a rollercoaster’s function, but when I strap myself into a car it still takes my breath away. I think that love is similar; The emotion is defined by the complex interplay between biology (as Emily and Gillian discuss), cultural and environmental influences (as Liz and Natsu discuss in their posts), and also by the way we choose to deal with the emotion on a conscious level (as Jenna addresses in her post). Even taking these things into consideration, there is no reason why it can’t still feel magical. Due to the complexity of the emotion, I agree with Jessica’s point that there may indeed be no such thing as “true love.” At the same time, I believe that aspects of love appear to be universal: Human empathy, the formation of social hierarchy, and sexual feelings to name a few.

Another point that has been brought up is how animal models (like the voles) explain human relationships. Again, it is important to understand that these studies do not attempt to summarily explain the complexity of human monogamy, but rather show that neurophysiology appears to have at least a partial role in human bond pairs. As an animal researcher, I am often asked about how my work is “practical,” or directly relates to the human condition. To use the vole study as an example, voles do not have sex for the same reasons that human do. As far as we can tell, voles do not have sex because they are bored, or as an affair as a way to show a spouse that the marriage is over. Human sexuality is almost hopelessly complex, but the important thing to understand when trying to parse out the reasons for emotions like love and jealousy is the concept of proximal versus ultimate goals. We have sex for many different reasons: We’re bored, we’re in love, we’re jealous, we’re tying to have a baby, it feels good, we had too much to drink, etc. These are all proximal reasons- in very few instances are you thinking “I want to propagate the survival of my species” when you are flirting with an attractive stranger. Yet I believe that the only, the only way that these behaviors make sense is by putting them into perspective, to find the ultimate reason for why these traits have been passed down over thousands of generations of successful maters. And the reason is reproduction. Paul and Jessica have both brought up interesting counter-examples to these points, talking about other goals that lead up to or occur during sex. I would argue, however, that while love-related euphoria and the female orgasm may stem from a more basic reward-pathway or social framework, both of these systems evolved over time because they facilitated survival of younger generations (either by rewarding sex or the formation of a dyadic pair with a cocaine-like high, or increasing the chances that a mate will stick around to enjoy additional bouts of superior sex).

Finally, I’d like to address Paul’s comment about the reasons for this type of social research. I think that concepts like love are too complex to rationally define at this point in time, either in a scientific or political forum. Yet the latter has already done so by restricting the rights of homosexuals, including marriage. I wish that we had had more opportunity to discuss gay marriage in class, and the current stance on gay versus straight love. I think that additional research may help show that, in fact, there are no differences in the way that homosexual couples feel about one another, and that they deserve the same opportunities that heterosexual couples enjoy in our society. I’ll leave off at this point (this post is getting very long!) but I’d love to hear other thoughts about why this type of research is needed.



~Alex Tuttle

Haverford '08

aamen's picture

I also was particularly

I also was particularly interested in the part of our discussion last week addressing whether or not love can be seen as an addiction, which is an idea that has come up in biopsych classes I’ve taken in the past.  I understand the argument that whatever part of the brain lights up in response to pictures of romantic partners, we would come up with some sort of justification for why that is.  However, the fact is that one of the areas that does seem to become active contains reward pathways relevant to addiction.  I know that fMRI technology is far from perfect, and this kind of research of course does not prove that love can be seen as an addiction, but I think it is a valid theory.  I think most people can at least agree on the fact that being in love makes you feel good, and presumably this feeling good is somehow linked to a change in brain chemistry.  It would make sense to me that not just love but any type of emotional experience that affects dopamine levels in reward pathways are in a way mimicking the effects of drug use, and therefore could lead to a type of addiction.



On a totally different note, part of my thesis project this year involves the HPA (stress response) axis, and while doing research for it last semester I remember running across a number of articles discussing how oxytocin seems to have the ability to downregulate HPA axis activity.  In particular, I read one article discussing how species with clear pair-bonds (prairie voles, for example) have lower cortisol levels and apparently a higher threshold for HPA axis activation than non-monogamous animals, and that subjecting the non-monogamous animals to high levels of oxytocin caused their cortisol levels to drop.  I thought that this was interesting in relation to the article we read for class that mentioned how love is thought to decrease stress.




Jenna's picture

 In our discussion on

 In our discussion on Tuesday we focused a lot on whether love evolved because it resulted in more reproductive success and usually equated monogamy with love.  However, I don’t think we can really relate the monogamy voles exhibit to love in humans because it is very possible to have love without monogamy and monogamy without love.  If the emotion of love never existed I think that people would still stay together to raise their children and gain mutual health advantages.  In our society today many people say they are in love but are not monogamous.  Although I can see that evolutionary survival advantage of monogamy, I don’t know if there is a clear advantage for love.  Mostly I think the best thing about love is that it makes people feel good and strengthens a community and family unit.  Strengthening a family unit could increase reproductive success, however a community and family unit could function without it and therefore I think the most important reason people feel they need love is because it makes them feel good.  This leads into the discussion of whether love is an addiction and I think it is in that people (and most organisms) inherently want more of what makes them feel good.  This is not necessarily a trait that will allow a person to be more reproductively successful but it is still an important part of our nature.  


To abruptly change topics, I’d like to address the question of whether it is important to pursue love research.  I agree with the idea that all research is worth looking into because you never know what you will find, however at the same time I don’t think there is really much to do on love.  I think the only reason most people are interested in love research is because they want help finding the “perfect” match, but ultimately love is such a subjective feeling that it will always be different for each person.  Yes, certain brain areas may light up to give this general feeling, but I think what causes these areas to become active are very different for each person.  I think places such as eHarmony could only seem effective at making matches because all the people are committed to finding love and perhaps that is the most important factor in making a long lasting match. 


Finally, I’d like to add that in all of these discussions I’ve found myself having difficulty accepting that love is purely a biological/cultural/psychological phenomenon and therefore this topic has been one of the hardest for me to discuss.  I don’t want to believe that I only love someone until I have sucked all the “newness” out of them.  I am a person who loves romantic comedies and strongly (and probably naively) believes that love should have the magical quality seen in the movie and can last forever despite the current 50% divorce rate.  Thus, I’ve found all of our conversations about love inherently lacking because we don’t (or can’t) address what makes it so enchanting and special.

Jessica Krueger's picture

Sex as social...

So in my usual habit in classroom discussions I not only managed to reveal myself as wholly inarticulate, but also completely and utterly embarrass myself (and potentially others), so I would like to take this opportunity to re-hash what I meant to say as opposed to what actually came out.

It cannot be denied that the ultimate goal of sex is reproduction. This does not mean, however, that the sex act itself could not be co-opted into other services or goals other than merely making babies. While any discussion of evolutionary psychology finds itself subject to the criticism that any reason can be read into a structure, I personally find it interesting to consider several explanations for why we are the way we are, and maybe someone in this class hadn’t considered this view.

That human sex isn’t just about reproduction can be inferred from several instances of biology. The human female, unlike most other mammals, can engage in sex whenever she wishes. The maintenance of such receptivity and the subsequent increase in the production masculine genetic material all have a cost, and parsimony argues that this surplus would not exist without reason. Furthermore, some of our primate relatives engage in “social sex” akin to social grooming. In bonobo society, sex “is part and parcel of social relations…” (1) The author goes on to point out the disjoint between sex and reproduction in bonobos, but also in our own species as well. (It is also worth noting that bonobos are (as far as I know) the only apes who have produced an individual who developed verbal behavior without being explicitly taught – Kanzi.) Bonobos, close relatives of chimpanzees, only split away from the proto-humans 8 million years ago (1), meaning that it is conceivable that our basic social mores may mirror each other.

Another nail in the coffin for the “sex is only for making babies” argument (to me at least) is the highly contentious female orgasm. As scientists continue to research the minutiae of reproduction, we find that women play a more profound role in selecting “who gets in” to her ovum. In his controversial and frequently cited book Sperm Wars: The Science of Sex, Robin Baker suggests that a woman can subconsciously alter her fertility to either aid or discourage certain spermatozoa from making the mark. As per the female orgasm, Baker argues that not only can a man taking the time and effort to bring his partner to orgasm be seen as him rehearsing the assertion that he has the capacity to provide resources for his mate (both the physical vigor and the “consideration”), but that a woman can time her orgasm so as to alter the potential of insemination (2). In making it a woman’s choice (to some degree), the elective female orgasm reintroduces a social component in that lovers who choose to take the time to “bring her to fruition” may be showing a deeper social commitment, and that a woman can conceivably have sex for a reason other than simple reproduction.

1. “Bonobo Sex and Society: The behavior of a close relative challenges assumptions about male supremacy in human evolution” by Frans de Waal


2. Sperm Wars: The Science of Sex Robin Baker


Marissa Patterson's picture

The study of love

I find it interesting that even after a full class and talks on the forum, we still are not able to come to any kind of conclusion as to how this research should happen. As we talked about in class, there are so many different "kinds" of love, not simply the different ones we talked about (for a parent, a spouse, a child) but also within other societies, as Natsu mentioned. I have so enjoyed hearing another side of issues that I thought were so clear, but of course it is NOT as clear as it may seem. Love is so subjective, many of us talked about how experience oriented it was, so focused on a particular mindset that, when looking back, may or may not seem so clear.

How on earth, then, can we do this kind of research at all. I was so struck by how specific all of the studies were. There was always the little note--these people self-reported being in love, and we didn't know if their spouse loved them, and on and on until it becomes so unclear as to whether we are able to conclude anything at all.

At first I was thinking about the "certainty" of being in love. I found myself considering love much more shown in class most people seemed unsure as to whether they had been in love. Depression or schitzophrenia or other similar disorders seem much more clear, you have it or you don't, but after thinking on that I do not feel that it is true.

We know what schitzophrenia is because someone sat down and wrote out qualifications for the DSM. If someone were to do that for love, what would that entail? You must feel flushed in their presence AND want to give them your last item of food, but if you merely enjoy talking to them, it is NOT love. I am certain people would have as many problems with that kind of criteria as some feel for the DSM. Perhaps in matters of the brain we must be content to say it is much less clear.

Emily Alspector's picture

age differences?

I, also, really enjoyed this topic of conversation. I like it because it's not really about who's "right" or what's unethical, which are, while worthy of discussion, very opinion based and often ends up raising more questions than answers (not that that's a bad thing, just really frustrating). Anyway, to touch on a few things, I think Liz's example of a "zombie brain" is a really intriguing one. Why would we be biologically built (from an evolutionary perspective) to both "cognitively merge", yet fall out of love with loss (or change?) of receptors? It seems there must be more to "love" (or at least maintaining a relationship) than this. I know the topic of loves other than romantic kept coming up but then shoved back in the closet, perhaps because as young adults we are more interested in the futures of our future marriages than a more stable love, like that of a friend or mother. However, I have found I've "fallen out of love" with a friend, so are there similar changes occurring there? Gillian's point about love as an addiction, and the idea of withdrawal, but in experiencing falling out of love, I wouldn't say I experienced the same withdrawal as, say, "heartbreak withdrawal". In that case, are the neurotransmitters still downregulating? at a faster rate?

Another interesting point that maybe someone else can also comment on was the question of possible age differences in being "better at relationships" (and whether this means staying in them, getting out of them, keeping them working, or even just realizing its potential is still arguable; i might argue that it's all of the above). It seems this is unanswerable with the current research, and there are many factors involved, but if everything is accounted for, I would presume this would still be unanswerable because of generational and cultural differnces. Our grandparents raised in a world of marriage at 20 years. Our parents were raised in a world of free love. We were raised in a world with a 2-1 (or 2.7-1) divorce rate. It seems that the cultural differences found among generations would make it impossible to reliably study such an effect. Similarly, it would difficult to study "relationship capacity" across cultures for the very same reasons. And, like Elliot said, "trying to break love down into many describable parts seems to somewhat ruin the wonderful, indescribable aspect of love." So why bother?

kbrown's picture

Love and Health

Hi guys, one thing that we did not get to discuss in depth on tuesday were the articles that described the health benefits and risks of being in a relationship, namely of marraige.  The articles, though more pop-science, brought up an interesting topic in my mind that seems to play into the "evolutionary adaptiveness of love" that we spoke about a little on tuesday.  The articles seemed to express that on the whole it is advantageous, healthwise, to be in a relationship because this situation provides, if not directly then indirectly, more health benefits than being single (if not for the simple reason that two heads are better than one when it comes to recognizing illness and getting the motivation to treat it). 

The discussion about whether being in love or having a significant other is evolutionarily adaptive purely because of the reproductive aspect seems to tie in to this discussion of health benefits.  Although I do think that in the end, our emotions surrounding love for a partner at their base are tied to the need for sexual reproduction, it is not hard to imagine that the health benefits of being in a relationship could play a role in the evolutionary adaptiveness of love as well.  It may be that throughout time those of our ancestors that were able to commit to a long term relationship, possibly spurred on by the emotions tied to love, had better health outcomes. 

However, as I was thinking this idea through, an article that was presented in Wendy Sternberg's pain psychology class came to mind that, while not completely refuting this notion, at least brought its validity into question.  It seems that researchers found that patients with severe back pain actually had higher ratings of pain and more overt pain behavior when their spouse's were more "solicitous", meaning that they were more willing on a regular basis to dote on their wife or husband in pain.  It seems then that spouse's whose love for their partners spurrs them to (perhaps obsessively) monitor and aid their spouse's condition, actually makes things not better, but worse for their spouse.  It is hard to imagine how this kind of mechanism would make love evolutionarily adaptive.  Anyways, just thoughts to throw out there!  Good job Alex, Amelia and Stephanie!

Andrea G.'s picture

I also thought a lot about

I also thought a lot about the article about marriage and health this week.  The results of these studies strike me as fascinating, but I'm also a little wary of what they're actually telling us.  All of these studies are correlational, and, in my opinion, could all very well be related to a third variable that's being ignored in collecting data.  Perhaps married people are healthier than single people.  But maybe that's simply because healthy people are more likely to get married in the first place.  We talked about the evolutionary idea of choosing a mate based on attractiveness, which can be correlated with health, in order to insure that your offspring are as healthy as possible.  So if everyone's only choosing relatively healthy mates to begin with, marriage becomes an institution with a somewhat limited population. 

One specific statistic that caught my attention was that married people have lower rates of all types of mental illnesses and suicide.  Going along with the third variable idea, isn't it possible that people with mental illnesses, or those who may develop them in the future, just aren't getting married?  It's so easy to see these correlational data and think "wow, marriage does such great things for your health", but unless you can actually tease out all of these highly confounding variables, it's very hard to make that claim.

Elliot Rabinowitz's picture

Love: Do you really want to know?

There are many potentially interesting ways to further our discussion from Tuesday, but I’d first like to somewhat address one of Professor Grobstein’s questions – what are the benefits and costs of researching the science of romance? This closely relates to Emily’s question of what are we to actually do with the information we discover? As we discussed in class, romantic love is something highly personal and individualized, but also somewhat universal. There are many commonalities that can be drawn between individuals’ descriptions of their “love”. As Professor Le stated, these specific aspects and commonalities are what he and most of his peers in the field study – directly tackling something as multi-faceted and broad as love sounds like an impossible task. However, assuming that we can actually determine the underlying neurological aspects of love, the cultural influence from a societal level, the genetic contribution, the personal experiences in one’s life that influence how one “loves,” etc., I’m not sure I would even want to know it all. There’s something interesting, mysterious, even attractive about the inability to fully understand and describe love. I guess knowing all of these things might not necessarily encompass what it actually feels like to love someone. But getting close to the point of trying to break love down into many describable parts seems to somewhat ruin the wonderful, indescribable aspect of love. Maybe I’d just get used to it, and learning more about the neurological bases of love might help science and people in some way in the future, but I kind of like the way I currently think (and don’t know how to think) about “love”.


Something else that I found truly fascinating that came up during class was the idea that people in love might not actually love their partner, but rather the co-occurrences and experiences that accompany that person. I remember learning the couples who seek out activities and do new things together usually stay together longer and are happier with their relationship as compared to couples who do not create such bonding activities. However, I never thought of it as simply being in love with those activities. In many ways, I think this idea is true. It makes sense that someone loves what they do with his/her partner and how that person makes him/her feel. On the other hand, there again seems something disheartening or unsatisfactory about that answer. Maybe it’s just that I (and I think many others) like to think about love as more than just the right mixture of activities and feelings. I’m curious as to what other people think. Do you agree that loving someone is really about loving the co-occurrences that you get by being with them? Is that true for all kinds of love? Does it lessen how you think/feel about love?


Finally, I just thought I’d let everyone know that the coverstory on Scientific American Mind this week is titled “Why We Kiss.” It’s an interesting article that definitely relates to our topic this past week. Thanks for a great discussion and see you all soon!

Mawrtyr2008's picture

Love: Do you really want to know? Part II

The title of Eliot's post, "Do you really want to know?" and Paul's concern about how research in a given discipline (in this case, love) is applied really prompted the following line of thought. It seems to me that the application of research for practical purposes is one of the most important and also ethically challenging, and merits a great deal of attention. What do we do with this now?

One of the most interesting parts of the readings, and also one of the most relevant parts of this discussion, centers on the dramatic effects of a pinpoint mutation on pair bonding in voles. The findings on this topic provide clear therapeutic potential for other animals, including humans. I don’t have a strong background in genetics, but if pair bonding could be enhanced through genetic manipulation, by differential transcription of proteins, that’s a potential avenue for further manipulation. Granted, I’m still unsure of how this manipulation would occur... pharmacotherapy ? deep brain stimulation ? .... but it seems possible that it could happen. In this specific example, the outcome would be enhancing pair bonding in humans, but who knows else could be included in future findings? I'm not meaning to imply that pair bonding is the same as the experience of love in humans, but there are striking similarities.

I find this possibility, even if it’s a remote one, to be worrisome and disturbing, sentiments that have been echoed in other posts. Although it might seem unscientific and sentimental of me, it totally weirds me out that something like love could be manipulated in this way. I recognize that the experience of love could be altered, enhanced, or made possible by altering mood and motivational states in other ways, but somehow I emotionally distinguish manipulating the process of falling in love with altering the experience of love. Furthermore, every way that we talk about love reflects how deeply grounded the "story of love" is in our culture. Phrases like "star crossed", "match made in heaven", and "soul mates" are pervasive and are used to explain this phenomenon that so many of us report experiencing. Questioning this culture, shaking this story, really is what I'm reacting to here when I feel uneasy about science-ifying love.

Furthermore, I feel this way about discussing love through an NBS lens, but I don't feel this way about addiction, learning, memory, emotion, or any other classic textbook topic. What is it that separates those things? Why is discussing addiction, learning, memory, emotion in this context ok, but discussing love seems untouchable? My gut reaction is that love is inherently different than those things, but my NBS background tells me that it's not love that's inherently different, it's how love is talked about and invoked within our culture that's different.

I guess that what I’m hitting on here is the major Catch-22 of neural and behavioral sciences in general. It's the "Emily Dickinson conundrum" many of us are familiar with from the Neurobiology and Behavior course. Our field tells us that consciousness, experinence, emotion, memory, everything is just "Salt running in and out of channels," as a friend put it the other day (also summarized by Francis Crick's The Astoninshing Hypothesis). How, then, can we reconcile any idea of autonomy or agency ? How can we come up with such abstract ideas such as love? How can we conceive of anything happening outside the brain?

Thank you all for an excellent topic choice!

krosania's picture

I’m sorry I missed our

I’m sorry I missed our discussion on Tuesday night but I have been traveling for a series of graduate school interviews and was not able to make it. I want to start by agreeing with the point that Paul made about the need to implement restrictions on the use of the term “scientific” in the field of dating websites. I think it is unethical to lead people to believe that there is perfect recipe for love by calling it scientifically proven. This will cause those for whom the recipe doesn’t work to believe that it is their own fault and something is wrong with them since it cannot possibly be the fault of the system. Also, and I know this may sound terrible, but I don’t know that I believe that everyone is capable of falling in love in the way that websites like eHarmony mean it. Many people have emotional limitations, and many people are simply too independent or unstable to permanently be in long-term relationships. Alternately there are many others who enjoy being in monogamous relationships for the sense of security it provides, and don’t necessarily value being emotionally or intellectually satisfied by their partner on a continual basis. I am not at all saying that everyone falls into one of these two categories, but am trying to provide an example of how there are many different kinds of romantic love that serve multiple purposes. Trying to analyze the neural basis of love in a general way is probably impossible because love means something different to many different people. Any scientific data that does come out about the neural basis of love needs to specify exactly what kind of emotion or relationship they are talking about.
I also think the debate of whether “opposites attract” versus matching on eHarmony’s core personality traits is an interesting one. In my view there is a big difference between the things that attract you to someone and the things that keep you together. I would guess that people’s relationships last longer if they are similar to one another in terms of values and sense of humor and maybe personality too, but it seems to me that initial attraction is usually based on differences. People feel that initial sense of excitement in a relationship when the person they are with challenges them in some way. If this is true that what attracts you to a person and what keeps you together are totally different things, than it’s no wonder that people have a difficult time making romantic relationships last.
Finally, I think that in modern times, the status of a relationship is affected by much more than just the interaction between the two people involved in a relationship. Culture plays an important role in many ways. People’s family’s expectations can greatly contribute to what a person is looking for in a relationship, usually in terms of values or religious beliefs. I also think culture is responsible for setting up people’s expectations about what love is supposed to be like, and I think many people just assume their partner is not “the one” when things are not wonderful all the time. I was never taught that a long-term romantic relationship is supposed to make you happy every second of every day, but I think many people do believe this is supposed to be true and are perpetually disappointed by relationships as a result. For this reason I think no matter what scientists find out about what makes people fall in love, there will always be people for whom it doesn’t apply, or who are not going to be satisfied by the results.
Danielle's picture

Exploring monogamy


I think one aspect of the conversation that has been neglected is the fact that as human beings we are extremely socially advanced and evolved. Being in contact with other people is a big part of our development socially, physically and emotionally. I think that we have a highly evolved emotional regulatory system that has not been fully explored. Also, I feel that the emotional regulatory system is variable from one person to the other, hence the social diversity seen in the populace. One important chemical factor involved in the emotional regulatory system is the chemical pathways associated with reward. I think that relationships are rewarding and make people feel good, hence dopamine pathways. Since relationships can be tied to dopamine pathways and reward, a person who is not monogamous can be seen as, what we call “addicted to love”. I feel that our emotional regulatory systems navigate and influence our choices of monogamy.


Also I feel that monogamy has a very historical basis. Evolutionarily, it was more efficient to be in a pair bond forever because it allowed more access to resources. In today’s world, access to resources is not limited and people who are not in a pair bond are able to survive and function equally as those who are with a partner. Thus, the lack of monogamy seen in today’s world can be seen as an evolutionary process in which each individual person can survive and have access to all resources without a partner. Also, as said before, I think this lack of monogamy is due in part to our highly evolved emotional regulatory system that finds it rewarding to be around people, the more people the better, the more rewarding.

natsu's picture

What can the brain tell as about different forms of love?

There are a lot of interesting topics that have already been raised above by others, but I wanted to write a little about a point that was brought up by Tamara and addressed by Alex at the beginning of class, which is the fact that there are multiple forms of love.  While I think they were talking about different kinds of love like romantic love, maternal love and friendship, I think it is also interesting that love exists in very different forms between different cultures.  For instance, even after living in the States for almost four years now, I am still amazed by the fact that people in this country seem to have a very strong form of love with their parents.  It always surprises me to hear people end their phone conversations with their parents with "I love you"  since I do not think most Japanese people would be thinking about love when they are talking to their parents (at least I don't).  It also seems that couples here have much higher expectations for their love relationship.  In Japan, when male workers have to work abroad, many decide on "tanshinfunin" without hesitation.  That is, if the spouse and family wish to stay in Japan, the father lives abroad for a couple of years on his own.  This is different from a separation and is totally acceptable in Japan, but I have heard that it is an unthinkable notion in western countries. 

I am wondering whether different forms of love can exist between different countries just because of our different believes and customs or whether there is some neuronal basis too. My guess is that while culture probably plays a huge part in creating the difference, there is at least some difference in how our mind operates too.  The reason why I suspect this is because I think that different forms of love exist between cultures due to the different language we speak, and as we know, there seems to be a lot of linkage between language and how our mind operates. I have always thought that English and many Latin languages are very affectionate. There are words and phrases like "home-sickness" and "I miss you" that people in western countries use all the time, though these words do not exist in many Asian languages.  Thus, I have probably never really felt homesick when I think of my family in Japan.  To give another example (and I am sorry that a lot of my examples are personal anecdotes) once I was replying to an email that my friend had sent me from an internet cafe.  This email was from a guy who I usually talk to in Japanese, but since he was traveling and couldn't read Japanese emails in internet cafes, we had to exchange emails in English.  I love the English phrase "I miss you" and use it all time to end messages that I write to people that I haven't seen in a while.  Thus, I ended my email to him with this phrase without thinking too much.  After I had typed up the email in English, I reread my email; however, this time I had switched to thinking in Japanese.  When I reread the email with a Japanese mind-set, I could not believe I had used such an embarrassing phrase to end an email to this person! I find it interesting that the mind can accept a form of affectionate behavior when in one stage, while it can't in another and I think it would be interesting to examine whether there are neuronal differences between different forms of love.


Jessica Krueger's picture

When I said that I didn't

When I said that I didn't necessarily believe in "true love," I meant something along these lines. While I'm sure there is some kind of evolutionary prerogative to keep a breeding pair together over time (which is subject to research) I'm no entirely convinced that what we mean when we say "I love you" to a friend, family member or lover can be considered outside of the cultural milieu within which it was produced. Your example within language interests me, because I've long been curious about the differences in emotional expression across different language types and the control language could exert over our subjective experiences (and to carry it further to Professor Grobstein's point, perhaps language itself is a limiting factor in which topics a scientist elects to pursue: if a concept doesn't exist in a language, it would be difficult to arrange an experiment for it).

ebitler's picture

cognition-sucking zombie brains?

Okay, so the most interesting thought that I had about last night’s discussion is completely tangential to the questions posed above, so I’m going to try to answer a few of those first. To address Paul’s question about whether or not we should be funding “science of love” research, my answer is definitely “yes”. It seems to me that knowledge is worth pursuing if for no other reason than pursuing knowledge; we never know what’s going to come out of it and what findings we may stumble upon that hold infinite potential. Granted, that’s an answer that’s applicable to all sciences… For the “science of love” specifically, I think that there will always be a drive to understand the forces that power our society and dictate (at least to some extent) the interactions between humans. It’s an experience that seems to be somewhat universal despite being highly subjective and individualized. And with so much hate and anger and war in this world, why not expend some energy trying to understand some of the more positive forces driving human action?


The other comment that I want to address before moving on is whether or not eharmony’s practices are “Scientific.” While I do see the difficulties that arise from this groups’ unwillingness to subject their methods to peer-review, it seems unreasonable to me to declare their practices unscientific. It undermines the very real research by respected experimental psychologists and implies that they’re not contributing to the fields of personality and social psychology. In reality, while their specific techniques are not being made public, they are promoting the idea that matching people according to dimensions of personality and beliefs can be effective, and this alone will promote further examination into this phenomenon by other research groups. (And considering the state of funding for social and personality psychology research, I certainly can’t condemn researchers for turning to private institutions for employment).


Now for my tangent… Tuesday night I had a little flashback to intro psych where I remember Ben telling us about cognitive merging. “Cognitive merging” occurs when you and your significant other gradually start thinking like your partner and kind of fuse together mentally. For example, if my boyfriend likes hot wings and I don’t really care for them when we start dating, as the relationship goes on I may dislike them less and less. Eventually when you give us surveys about our likes and dislikes, interests, etc., our answers reflect those of our partners. (This stuck with me because it was a really terrifying idea to me that I would loose part of myself by getting too involved in a relationship).


So it was really interesting to me in the discussion of the break-up when Ben said one of the major factors behind breaking up is the idea that we just get bored with our partner because there’s nothing new about them. If after two or three (or seven) years we’ve come to incorporate aspects of their personality into our own and cognitively merged with them, then does that mean that we’re really getting bored with ourselves? Our brain has sucked all that it can out of our partner and is ready to move on to suck more out of the next person? It leaves me with a mental image of our brains as parasitic zombies looking to feed off the brains of others… Although if this is the case, then I guess the answer to the breaking-up = advantageous question would be yes.


Yay for love and zombie brains. (and thanks stephanie, ameilia, & alex for a really interesting topic!)

Stephanie's picture

Issues Revolving Around the Science of LOVE

Hi Everyone!

I first want to thank our entire class for a wonderful discussion on Tuesday night. I think we covered interesting, controversial topics and participated in some very engaging discussions. So, thanks everyone for participating! I look forward to continuing our conversation about the "science of love" through this online forum.

I wanted to pose some interesting questions/ ideas that came up in our discussion and would like to hear what other people think of them:

E-Harmony- although we only just began talking about this topic at the end of our discussion, I think E-Harmony (and other sites like it) raise some interesting questions. E-Harmony matches people on 29 "core dimensions of personality"- E-Harmony has looked at core traits such as emotional temperament, social style, cognitive mode, physicality and at vital attributes such as relationship skills, beliefs & values, & key experiences. E-Harmony uses research based on successful & happy married couples to determine how they can match up two people based on 29 core dimensions of personality and then hopefully, so they can get married. However, although E-Harmony does not seem to match identical people to one another (clones), they definitely seem to be matching people who are "similar" on these 29 core dimensions of personality. My question is how does matching similar people together for marriage/ life/ families/ parents affect our natural "diversity"? I think it is an important issue to think of the implications E-Harmony could potentially have on effecting our diversity. E-Harmony's matching of similar people also makes me think of the cliche phrase: "opposites attract"- if this is true, which I think for some people it may be and for others it may not be, this idea goes against what "E-harmony" is trying to do. The opposites attract idea- seems to create more diversity (at least in my mind) than putting people who are very similar together.

Another interesting question that arose- "Is love an addiction?" Granted, it seems to me that love has many "addictive" qualities- and it does seem to be linked w/ brain areas involved in reward pathway. And, as I mentioned in class the same brain areas activated during cocaine and opioid-induced euphoria are activated while looking at a picture of your loved one- which suggests that love has this same "euphoric component" and "addictive component"? Although, no matter what brain areas lit up, I'm sure people would find a "plausible" story, however, I think the story they are telling right now (as far as brain areas are concerned) is quite plausible & convincing to me.

I also enjoyed talking about break-up as a good or a bad thing? And the question (emily brought up again) why do we fall out of love (and break-up?)? I think break-ups can be good & bad depending on each situation- however, I do think there is a stigma/ stereotype in our current society that break-ups are a "bad thing." I think this is primarily because when many of us are in a relationship that "breaks-up" we feel bad/ sad/ mad/ angry- many negative emotions afterwards. I'm interested to hear what other people think.

Also, I thought Paul raised an interesting question at the end of class and in the forum- about how this research on love/ romantic love relates to research in bio labs? should we be applying the same standards to both research? is the research on love/ romance worth doing? why? I think these are big questions to answer, and important ones we should continue to think about. I look forward to hearing everyone's responses!

ehinchcl's picture

my first early post...

There were so many things that were brought up last class that I was interested in hearing what everyone else thought about tht I figured I would actually post early (a rare occurence!) in order to get responses.

One thing that was really interesting to me was the whole idea of "falling out of love." if love is truly a biological thing, as combined with a sociocultural phenomenon, then my correct number of receptors needed to fall in love should be enough to stay in love. the point was brought up here that though the research was good, it doesnt really address all the neuronal connections that go on to regulate hormones and receptor levels etc to create the "neural capacity" to love. I think these factors, and their relationship to the environment, is interesting. Can we really, with enough study, figure out the exact neural pathways for such a complex emotion? And, to somewhat address Professor Grobstein's point, would we really want to expend the time and energy? For exmaple, we talked about perception of alternatives as being one of the greatest indicators of commitment (Professor Le's research). Could we find out exactly how the brain decides when it perceives alternatives, which, assuming the other research we read was correct, would then go on to change our "receptors of love"? And if we find all of this out (admittedly far into the future), what do we then do with teh information? This information would become a very interesting, and potentially dangerous, societal phenomenon. If we could make people love each other neurochemically we would have a whole SLEW of issues to deal with.

The other thing that I really wanted to comment on was the question that kept being raised by the presenters: "Romantic love as an addiction" because it acts throught the same reward pathways. First, like I mentioned in class, I'm not sure I agree with the whole reverse engineering an evolutionary reason for soemthing. We have no proof that just because it makes sense that love might be rewarding in order to pass on our genetic material (ex. more copulation, better support for the offspring in a 2 parent system), we have no actual proof that evolution acted as such. Evolution is a RANDOM event, and the selective pressures at the time our theorized "monogamy gene" (if we are even monogamous, which was brought into question) could be far different than those we hypothesize about today. Also, in terms of ideaological process, I somewhat question the idea that just because the same area is activated we can conclusively decide that the pathways are linked. It just seems liek a stretch to me, considering how little we know about the actual neural circuitry, and the lack of highly specific imaging techniques. Also, the possibility to create a theory around the results is worrisome: had different brain areas lit up, say the match the areas for something like analysis, I think we would have found a quite different yet also plausible theory, say about how true romantic love requires our higher order thinking to be activated. i think love as an addiction is an interesting idea, but I was somewhat unconvinced by the research behind it.

Sorry for such a long post, im interested to hear what you all thought!


Gillian Starkey's picture

After you mentioned

After you mentioned "falling out of love" in class, Emily, I started thinking about it in relation to an addiction model. We had just been talking about the potential to uncover the neural pathways associated with love (dopamine, etc.), and it made me think of some concepts we've been talking about a lot in my psychopharmacology class. IF, when we "fall in love," certain pathways are activated.....and assuming that these pathways function similarly to other neural pathways.....then eventually the postsynaptic receptors involved in these pathways will be downregulated to balance out the sudden increase in neurotransmitter levels. Staying in love would maintain (or continue to increase?) the high level of neurotransmitters being released in these pathways, which would continue the downregulation of receptors, resulting in us eventually having far fewer receptors than we started out with.

Any external (i.e., not biological) factor that negatively influenced feelings of love would then result in a decrease in neurotransmitter levels and, because of the lower number of receptors, withdrawal symptoms. These withdrawal symptoms could be manifested as depression, lethargy, etc.....the usual behaviors exhibited after a breakup. These withdrawal symptoms/behaviors last a while, which could be explained by the feedback system having to play catch-up to restore a proper balance of receptors as the neurotransmitter levels gradually return to baseline. In this way, I think that love fits nicely into a neurobiological model of addiction. Plus, the time it takes to upregulate receptors to a baseline level could explain why people who have just fallen out of love feel like they "will never love again." So, keeping in mind that this is entirely hypothetical and would only matter if we were in fact able to identify neural pathways that underlie love....does any small environmental influence to decrease love essentially make "falling out of love" inevitable, because of the neurotransmitter-receptor imbalance that it causes?

I just think it's fascinating to discuss love from a neurobiological perspective -- especially since it's something that, in cinematic and poetic cliches, is described as "magical" or something that "just happens" (quite the opposite of terms that neurobiologists and neuropsychologists like to use). Thanks for a great presentation (and, as always, discussion)!

Paul Grobstein's picture

The "Science of Love": Meta-Issues

Lots of different interesting things from last night's presentation/conversation to explore further. Many thanks to Stephanie, Amelia, Alex for fomenting it. Looking forward to seeing what other people heard/thought. For my part, I was intrigued by/am motivated to think more not only about particular issues that arose but also about a set of meta-issues, deriving in part form our earlier conversations about diversity.

I confess I would not have picked the "Science of Love" as a topic, and so among the things that impressed me was how enthusiastically others embraced it as an interesting subject for discussion. And that in turn had me thinking about scientific research more generally, not only about how questions are posed and explored but how they are chosen, and what the implications of that are. So a general set of questions to explore further, using "The Science of Love" as a case study ....

  1. What makes a subject worth spending time and money to study, individually and collectively?
  2. What are the benefits and costs of studying any particular topic?
  3. What are the appropriate standards for research on any given topic?

With regard to (1), there is clearly significant individual variation in what one is on the face of it interested in, and so the question is largely one of what generates/justifies collective interest. Equally clearly, there are lots of subjects of collective interest that don't, at any given time, generate communities of inquiry in which people willingly invest time and money (their own and other peoples"). The "Science of Love" would, I think, have been in this category several years ago. Is that changing, and if so, why?

My guess is that there are several factors operating here, that a substantial collective interest has always existed among humans in general and that it is some other changes that have facilitated its expression as "science". One might be the ongoing increase in the diversity of professional scientists, the addition of more people who (unlike me) have a spontaneous personal interest in the topic? A second might be the relatively independent development in several existing disciplines of a set of tools that can be productively used to dissect and hence explore both emotion generally and "love" specifically. Neurology (my reference was to the work of Antonio Damasio and the group around him), endocrinology, evolutionary biology, and both personality and social psychology, have clearly made relevant advances along these lines.

Perhaps a third reason to endorse a "science of love" (and my own favorite, given the conversation last night) is that it provides an arena in which scientists representing a diversity of backgrounds and perspectives can come together around a shared set of interests and, in so doing, start posing questions and imagining possibilities unlikely to have arisen in any of the individual disciplines alone.

NBS has a twenty year history that's relevant in this regard. It was originally conceived as bringing together faculty in five departments (Bryn Mawr Biology, Psychology, and Human Development; Haverford Biology and Psychology) with common interests in "neural and behavioral sciences". What exactly that meant has been continously debated, negotiated, and renegotiated, and it is only in the past few years that the original ambition has come at last to be fully realized administratively. That some behavioral sciences faculty remain unsure that they have a role to play in NBS and some students continue to worry about whether they have sufficient "neural" background suggests that the administrative achievement is still ahead of the intellectual one. Hopefully, our conversation last night can contribute to clarifying the benefits of creating a fuller intellectual commonality (one rooted in the benefits of diversity). Thanks to all for that.

If there is to be a "science of love" then it seems to me it, like physics or genetics, must begin to entertain questions of (question 2 above) the costs and benefits not only to practitioners but to the wider culture of which it is a part (and from which it needs support). We didn't talk much about this last night, but the parallels seem to me obvious. Are we expecting the new science to improve human lives? to make "love" more available to everyone? And if it moved in that direction, what would be the potential costs? Does it diminish our sense of meaning to have "love" dissected? Would making "love" tools available to everyone diminish our diversity? Should we perhaps be asking science not how to make love "easier" but rather to help us come up with new and different ways of thinking about "love"?

And from this in turn follows question 3, and a concern about I briefly allluded to at the end of our conversation last night. If there is to be a science of love, it should be, for me at least, subject to the same ethical standards I (if not others) would apply to any other "science"

"As the borders between basic and applied research, between the academy and commerce, have blurred, the terrain has shifted from one where scientists needed to be reminded to think about the potential impact of their work on the world at large to one where many scientists start with quite deliberate intentions of impacting on the world at large. And from one in which much science was done out of relatively pure curiosity to one where at least as much is done because of, or at least in awareness of, the potential for significant personal gain, financial and otherwise. The need for some kind of professional code of ethics for science is, in consequence, even greater now than it was ..."

That ethical code would, at a minimum, preclude using the adjective "science" for any activity in which both the observations and the procedures for interpetation of them are not freely and publicly available. Without that, there is no way for others to further test them nor, even more importantly, to make use of them in the continuing development of new ways of thinking about things.

Serendip Visitor's picture

Thanks for sharing

your musings with the world. My husband and I are science journalists who write a lot about falling in and out of love, and the science that might explain it. ("Cupid's Poisoned Arrow: From Habit to Harmony in Sexual Relationships") Some of you might find this "Psychology Today" blog interesting: