Conducting research with lovesick college students poses some special challenges. At least that's what Arthur Aron, PhD, and his colleagues found while running a brain imaging study a few years ago. His participants-students who had recently fallen madly in love-had no trouble with the first part of an experiment: lying in a brain-imaging machine, gazing at their partners' pictures and thinking about the person they loved. But when Aron asked students to shift their attention to a picture of an acquaintance, he ran into trouble.
"They couldn't stop thinking about their partners," says Aron, a social psychology professor at Stony Brook University.
After months of pilot testing, Aron, Lucy Brown, PhD, and Helen Fisher, PhD, and their colleagues discovered that they could distract participants by showing them a randomly generated number and making them count backwards by sevens for several minutes. Only afterward could they think about their acquaintances.
"One subject told us that having done that in the study helped her go to sleep at night," Aron says.
The great lengths the student had to go through to stop pondering her partner illustrates what a powerful force romantic love is, says Aron. But, contrary to popular opinion, that force is not an emotion, he contends. Rather, it is a motivational state, perhaps one as fundamental as hunger and thirst.
Recent research by Aron and others supports this theory. For instance, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies show that dopamine-rich areas of the brain light up when we think about a romantic partner. Those regions, such as the ventral tegmental area (VTA), are known as the motivation and reward system, and appear to activate whenever people get something they deeply desire-food, water, cocaine or perhaps a girlfriend's phone call. Some behavioral research, as well as people's description of romantic love, lends further support to the theory, Aron says.
"For many people, the experience of falling in love is like being in a desert and suddenly seeing water out there," notes Aron.
A parched man in the desert may feel elated upon spotting an oasis. But if the water turns out to be a mirage, he'll experience an entirely different set of strong emotions, notes Lucy Brown, PhD, a neurology professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. The fact that love, like thirst, can lead to a wide variety of intense feelings suggests that it's closer to being a drive than an emotion in its own right, she says.
"People tend to think when you are in love you are happy, but love can also mean feeling anxious, angry, sad," says Brown.
An as-yet-unpublished study by psychology graduate student Bianca Acevedo confirms Brown's hunch. Acevedo, in her fourth year at Stony Brook University, gave 183 students a list of 69 emotion words, such as affection, jealousy and bliss. She then gave them one of four target terms-anger, fear, joy, sadness or love-and asked them to check off all the emotion words that related to their target term.
She found that people checked off about seven more list items when given the target term "love" than they did with the other targets. What's more, the students linked both positive and negative words to "love," whereas words like "joy" garnered only positive associations.
"We believe this shows that love, in general, operates differently than emotions," Acevedo says. Those who think of love as an emotion may be misdirected by the fact that love can cause such strong emotions, she notes.
Some emotion researchers take issue with that stance. Gian Gonzaga, PhD, a psychologist and the senior research scientist at eHarmony Labs, says that the flash of love, the warmth and affection that you feel for just a few moments when you think about a lover, is an emotion. And like other emotions, love has a distinct nonverbal display, according to a 2006 study by Gonzaga and his colleagues in Emotion (Vol. 6, No. 2, pages 163-179). The researchers videotaped 63 couples while they reminisced about their first date. During these exchanges, participants tended to lean toward each other, smile and gesture with open hands, the researchers found.
In contrast to Acevedo's findings, the participants in Gonzaga's study reported feeling a consistent set of positive emotions, including high levels of happiness and arousal and low levels of discomfort and fear.
The conflicting results may come from the varying definitions of love used by different schools of researchers, Gonzaga notes.
"There are a lot of theories of love and love across time," Gonzaga notes. "In some conceptions love isn't always a good thing. It isn't always a happy thing."
While there may be moments of placidity, the larger experience of love is a mixed bag, Aron agrees. In fact, participants in Aron's fMRI study, published in the Journal of Neurophysiology (Vol. 94, No. 1, pages 327-337), reported a variety of different emotions as they gazed at their partners-and their brains, too, showed a diverse array of activation patterns. Some participants who reported being happily in love even reacted to the photos with increased amygdala activity-a response associated with fear and anxiety.
Those fretful participants might have been worried about the possibility of losing their partners, notes Brown, a study co-author.
"With love, emotion is certainly involved, and emotion areas of the brain are involved, but it is going to be much more dependent on the individual's personality and attachment style," she says.
While the participants in Aron's study felt many different emotions when thinking of the person they loved, they did have one thing in common-they all showed activation in the VTA, the right posterodorsal body and the medial caudate nucleus. These dopamine-rich regions of the brain signal satiation of deep needs, notes Helen Fisher, PhD, an anthropology professor at Rutgers.
"All of the basic drives are associated with the dopamine system, and so is romantic love," Fisher notes.
The increase in energy that people newly in love experience-their ability to stay up all night talking-may be due to a flush of dopamine, Fisher says. Dopamine-system activation is also related to focused attention, underpinning the feeling that one person is the new center of your world, she says.
Some of the same systems activated in people who are happily in love are also similar to those activated among people who have been recently rejected, according to an as-yet-unpublished study by Fisher and her colleagues. They had 15 lovelorn students lie in an fMRI machine and look at pictures of their former partner or a familiar acquaintance.
As with the happily in love students, the lovelorn showed increased activation in the motivation and reward systems when they thought about the person they loved. Unlike the happily in love students, the lovelorn also showed activation in their right nucleus accumbens, an area of the brain associated with taking big risks.
Taken together, the studies paint a picture of love acting in a manner not unlike cocaine, which also works through the dopamine system and causes intense craving, says Fisher.
"Addictions are very powerful, and all of the addictions are associated with dopamine in one way or another," she notes.
Seeing love as an intense drive to be close to someone, rather than an emotion, may help clinicians understand the yearning people have for their loved-ones, says Fisher. It could also help us predict how people will react when they can't get what they want, she says.
"Many instances of homicide and suicide and stalking are associated with romantic love, and the more we can understand the basic processes in the brain, the more we can understand why people commit these crimes," says Fisher.