LOVE IS IN THE… BRAIN
BY DEBBIE ALMOCERA
It was probably close to my last years in grade school when I got hooked on romance novels that epitomize hopelessly-in-love heroines and the ever so-stoic out-of-this-world-drop-dead-gorgeous heroes. Reading these books took me to new heights of imagination and expectation that someday I would be swept off my feet by one such unbelievable charming prince. I was constantly daydreaming, awaiting for that moment to arrive.
And arrive he did, (admittedly a few more after), along with a boat-load of disappointments and irrational expectations that tumbled-over like a pile of dominoes.
At first glance the overwhelming ecstatic emotional high that one experiences when in love, tend to dominate every part of one’s brain and sensibility. New research in the neurochemistry of love done at the Emory University and Albert Einstein College of Medicine, to name a few, have shown that the notion of romantic love only goes as far as the reward and reinforcement circuits of the brain are being activated. This reward and reinforcement circuit appears to be facilitated by a bundle of nerve cells, called the medial forebrain bundle (MFB). When “activated”, this neural bundle appears to trigger activity in other areas in the brain, including the four areas referred to as the “love circuit”, namely, the ventral tegmental area (VTA), the nucleus accumbens, the ventral pallidum and the raphe nucleus. These are the areas associated with the release of Dopamine, Serotonin and Norepinephrine, which are fondly called the “feel good” neurotransmitters. When these neurotransmitters are released, you’re on “cloud 9”.
The rest of the body reacts accordingly, sending “butterflies” in one’s stomach, and causing the heart to beat a mile a minute.
There will come a time however, according to these studies, approximately between 12-15 months, when this neural activity goes back to normal, and the excitement of romance gradually diminishes. Sadly, there is a chance that you may wake up one morning only to realize that you are no longer madly in-love with the person you’ve been sleeping with. By then, one can only hope that there is something more in the relationship aside from blind devotion and heart palpitations.
As the brain quietly settles down, and the heat of passion subsides, thinking processes goes back to “normal”, and rationality seeps through. These supposed rationale thinking patterns eventually in fact, determine the lifespan of one’s relationship.
It is interesting to note that the frontal lobe, which is that part of the human brain primarily responsible for rational thinking, is also the last part of the brain to develop. (Thus I could understand why teenagers engage in impulsive and irrational behaviors). Fronting the frontal lobe, is the prefrontal cortex, which is the “head honcho” of decision-making, the seat of willpower, the “conscious mind”. Unfortunately, it is also the slowest.
The prefrontal cortex takes its time when making decisions. It has to consider a significant amount of information, such that, sometimes, decisions are made, even without it knowing. One might be able to deduce that when other areas of the brain are activated, such as the four areas known as the “love circuit”, the prefrontal cortex may not even know about it, or at least, haven’t thought enough about it to make a smart and logical decision. When one is madly in love, you can bet they just might have lowered their IQ levels, and currently experiencing a “dumb as a box of rocks” moment.
When the prefrontal cortex finally catches up with the rest of the brain, the love-struck person gradually realizes the consequences of his or her actions, and perhaps would thank his or her lucky stars for having found a perfect mate, or for the unlucky ones, to dig deep for reasons to stay in the relationship, and make it last. For where romantic love ends, real life begins.
I am not trying to diminish the value of love by reducing it into a bundle of neural circuitry. After all, I’ve heard people profess undying everlasting love to each other, over the years, numerous times. However, just because sparks don’t fly and there are no more fireworks in the background, doesn’t mean love is gone. It is simply replaced by intelligence and wisdom – knowing that the person you’re with is THE ONE, whether they look like your imagined hero or heroine, or having not the slightest resemblance.
Debbie Almocera is a licensed therapist working in the behavioral medicine department of one of the largest hospitals in St. Louis, Missouri. For her, there has not been a more fulfilling and rewarding career than the one she has now. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org