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Science of love: It's more about your head than your heart

February 13, 2011|BY TIFFANY ARNOLD | tiffanya@herald-mail.com
Graphic by Chad Trovinger

Those butterflies in your stomach, the flush of heat to your cheeks, that inexplicable longing for your honey bunny — each is the result of a biochemical cocktail of hormones swirling in your head.

As it turns out, it's the systems in your brain, not the trajectory of Cupid's arrow, that conspire to create the feelings we recognize as romantic love, says author, anthropologist and biologist Helen Fisher.

"There are more nerve cells in the brain than there are stars in the Milky Way," said Fisher, who chatted with The Herald-Mail ahead of her lecture, "Lust, Romance & Attachment: The Science of Love and Whom We Choose," at the Maryland Science Center in Baltimore. "Each one of them has as many as 10,000 connections with everything else around them."

Face it, our brains are wired for love. Humans are hard-coded to be romantic. And that the drive to be Mr. or Mrs. Romantic, especially on Valentine's Day? It's in our genes.

"The biological explanation for the evolution of romantic behavior is very unromantic," said Judith Peisen, chair of the math and science department at Hagerstown Community College.

It comes down to reproduction.

The mission of DNA, Peisen said, is to make copies of itself. Once you have a mature organism, the mission shifts to getting the DNA into the next generation. "So behaviors that lead to that are favored in evolution," Peisen said.

Romantic behavior leads to the creation of more offspring, she elaborates, which promotes the successful rearing of those offspring into maturity, which promotes their ability to create more individuals ... and the cycle continues.

"The mature organism is really DNA's way of making more DNA," said Peisen, who was referencing Richard Dawkins' 1970s book "The Selfish Gene." "The purpose of an adult is that it's just a package of getting the DNA into the next generation."


Predestined for romance?

Gary "Ryan" Grove, 26, of Clear Spring, considers himself to be a romantic guy.

"Oh, he definitely is," said his fiancée Jen Brown, a 26-year-old school teacher from Williamsport. "My first week of teaching he sent me roses 'just because,' saying how proud he was of me. There's definitely a romantic side to him."

Even his proposal was romantic.

He recruited Brown's colleagues and her school's principal to distract her while he entered her empty classroom. He hid in a storage closet after writing a message on the board: "It's funny how things happen, things kind of come full circle and I want to spend the rest of my life with you and I want the rest of my life to start now."

"Then he came out and got down on one knee," Brown said.

They've set the date for July 30.

But is romance really in Grove's DNA? Are his actions really driven by a primal need to reproduce? The thoughts seemed far-fetched for the couple. "I guess subconsciously maybe, it's happening in the background," Grove said, "but I wasn't saying, 'OK, I want to have kids a year from now.'"

One thing that is true for Grove and Brown or anyone who thinks they're in love, they're all experiencing something similar in their brains.

"I'd describe it as a euphoric feeling," said Pete Swacina, 27, of Hagerstown. "Whenever you see the person you smile, you're just elated. You're willing to do whatever to help them out, to make them happy. You just basically can't imagine not being with that person."

He was talking about his fiancee, Sara Wiles, a 24-year-old case manager at San Mar Children's Home.

"If I look back to the first day when I thought I was in love, I think, 'Wow, I didn't even understand what love was,'" said Wiles, who lives in Fairplay. "But now I realize I definitely want the best interest of my fiance; almost before my own. I never want to hurt him. I want to support him in whatever he dreams."

Wired for love?

In order to study where romantic love registers within the brain, Fisher and a team of researchers conducted brain scans on people who were recently in love, recently rejected in love and people who had been married for an average of 21 years and said they were still in love with their partner.

She found that all three had activity in the same part of the brain — the ventral tegmental area (VTA).

"It's part of the brain's reward system, the brain system for wanting," Fisher said.

The VTA is the part of the brain that creates dopamine, the neurotransmitter that makes lovebirds think their significant others are special and makes them feel elated to be around each other and have the energy to walk and talk for hours, Fisher said.

However, wanting chocolate, wanting your kids to get into college and wanting a pay raise can also be attributed to the circuitry of the VTA.

That's not really romantic, right?

Fisher explains that the brain is a big mix-and-match system. Romantic love results when three brain systems are triggered: the system for mating and reproduction, the VTA system that spews the dopamine and a third system associated with attachment.

Sometimes the trigger can happen instantly, Fisher says, as in love at first sight.

That was the case when Terry Marshall met Janet Brandenburg on a blind date in 1960.

"Yeah," said Terry Marshall, 74, of Beaver Creek, "I thought she was a neat gal."

They got married eight months later, though Janet Marshall, 69, insists it wasn't love at first sight for her.

"I really wasn't too impressed, to be honest with you," she said. "I just wasn't. When he kept pestering me, kept calling me, it grew from there."

The couple celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in October. They have two grown children, daughter Teri Baker and son Philip Marshall, and 10 grandkids.

"It was just fun to be together," Janet Marshall said.

So in the end love prevailed for the Marshalls. This experience seems to reflect something Fisher mentioned as a final Valentine's message to singles.

"Give people a chance," Fisher said. "Think of a reason to say yes. Take a second look. This brain system of romantic love can be triggered at any time in a relationship. Just spend the time to get to know somebody and it will probably happen."

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