Debunking the Headlines: Falling in Love in 0.2 Sec.? We Don’t Think So

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An assistant professor of psychology at Syracuse University wanted to know what love looked like in the brain. So she analyzed a collection of studies that focused on imaging the brain during romantic moments. What she found was fodder for lots of catchy headlines like “Brain Takes Less Than Second to Fall in Love.” Less than a second? Healthland is skeptical.

Most of the studies reviewed in the meta-analysis used fMRI — a type of brain imaging scan — to determine blood flow in the brain, a measure of brain activity, in response to stimuli like seeing a loved one’s face, hearing his or her name, or imagining an experience you’ve had together. (More on Time.com: Forget Pain Pills, Fall in Love Instead)

Prof. Stephanie Ortigue and her colleague Dr. Francesco Bianchi-Demicheli, a psychiatrist at the University Hospital in Geneva, found that when a person is feeling in love, the brain shows activity in the same pleasure and reward pathways that are involved when people are under the influence of euphoria-inducing drugs like cocaine (or, for that matter, looking at sexually arousing images). The brain also showed deactivation in areas involved in emotions such as anxiety, fear and grieving.

It’s not news that the same pleasure centers light up in response to passionate love and to drugs — but it would be wrong to suggest that love triggers activity in the brain’s drug pathways. Rather, as my colleague Alice Park explained in a recent post, it’s the other way around: drugs light up the brain’s “love” centers — providing the euphoric feeling of love is one reason many people might take drugs to begin with.

But the sexiest news headline to come from this study — that “love at first sight” can occur within one-fifth of second — is misleading. Instead, Ortigue found that the neurotransmitters associated with love pathways could flood the brain within one-fifth of a second based only on visual cues, well before higher-order cognition could recognize the face. (More on Time.com: 5 Little-Known Truths About American Sex Lives)

“Interestingly we see that primary visual areas are activated in the first milliseconds of visual processing, then higher-order associative brain areas…are activated, and then we see a flow of backward activation from these associative brain areas to the primary visual and emotional brain areas,” explains Ortigue. “These results reinforce [our] neurofunctional top-down model of interpersonal relationships, which suggests that higher-order cognitive brain areas might prime more basic brain areas during love relationships.”

In other words, studies suggest that the love response can be swift and visually cued, but that’s different from the concept of falling in love at first sight with a stranger. The participants in the studies Ortigue reviewed were already in love; they were simply shown photos or asked to recall the names and images of the people they loved. And again, the fact that feelings of love can come on quickly and powerfully isn’t news to anyone who’s ever been head over heels. (More on Time.com: Photos: Love and Marriage in Prime Time)

What was of interest was Ortigue’s discussion of the chemical differences between romantic and non-romantic love. In addition to showing the brain responses associated with love, people who identified as being “deeply, passionately in love” with their partners had higher levels of nerve growth factor (NGF) in their blood when looking at photos of their lovers or when thinking about experiences shared with them, compared with those who saw images of friends or even their own children. NGF, which stimulates the growth of certain sensory nerves, is also associated with increased feelings of sympathy.

Other study participants who experienced maternal or companionate love showed a different kind of brain activity, in the periaqueductal gray matter (PAG) area, which is associated with mitigating emotional and physical pain (such as that of birthing or raising a child). It is also associated with more complex emotional and cognitive processing than is passionate love. (More on Time.com: Divorce: It’s Not If You Fight, But How You Fight That Matters).

Why is that important? Not only does love feel good and possibly lessen pain, but Ortigue says it also encourages people to continue to forge a bond — partly because they are “chasing the high” of the love-soaked brain. But, neurologically speaking, as Ortigue noted, love is also more complex than that. She wrote in the paper:

Interestingly, the present fMRI results demonstrate that love not only recruits subcortical dopaminergic brain areas, but also activates higher-order cortical brain areas. This reinforces the fact that love is more than a basic emotion. Love also involves cognition. …

Love is also a complex function including appraisals, goal-directed motivation, reward, self-representation, and body-image.

Ortigue believes that studying different forms of love is essential for couples counseling and the treatment of sexual dysfunction within couples, since love and sex are often intertwined. Also, since passionate love and companionate love are both components of a couple’s bond, Ortigue wants to map the neurological functions of these two different emotions and the motivations for each.

“With this review, the ultimate goal of the present article is to offer clinicians another non-invasive option to approach theoretical complexities of love, close relationships, couples, human sexual health and behaviors during daily practice,” Ortigue wrote.

A lifetime commitment to working on a close relationship — that’s about as far from love at first sight as you can get.

More on Time.com:

Were You Born This (Un)Happy, or Did You Marry Into It?

Study of American Sex Habits Suggests Boomers Need Sex Ed

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