Thursday, November 13, 2003

"Think I'm in love/Probably just hungry"

L. Helmuth reports for ScienceNOW on two fascinating presentations from the November 11 meeting of the Society for Neuroscience. ScienceNOW requires a non-free subscription but some excerpts follow.

First up: A recent study by H. Fisher (of Rutgers), A. Aron, D. Mashek, G. Strong, and L. L. Brown provides some insights into the neurochemistry of love; from Helmuth's article (emphases mine):

College students participating in the study of romance had been with their One True Love for between 2 to 17 months and they displayed all the classic, feverish, delusional symptoms: obsessive thinking about their partners, sleeplessness, euphoria when things are going well. ...

These lovebirds --- seven men and 10 women --- then went into a functional magnetic resonance imaging scanner ... Regions of the brain involved in the motivation and reward system lit up in response to the loved one, including parts of the caudate nucleus and the ventral tegmental area. ...

These results differ from those of a previous study ... which imaged the brains of people who'd been in relationships for more than 2 years, on average, and found lots of activity in emotional areas such as the insula and anterior cingulate. Fisher's team reexamined their data and found that the subjects in relatively longer-term relationships also activated these emotion centers when viewing their loved ones.

So --- watch my cynicism to swing into action --- the first flush of infatuation, with butterflies in your stomach and palpitations in your heart, has much more in common with basic physical urges like hunger or arousal than with genuine emotions. Spiritualized had it right all along. For infatuation to become an emotion, rather than merely an urge, you have to wait for at least a few months. Maybe a year or more (hard to tell from the articles and the abstract; this work has not yet been published as a complete, peer-reviewed paper).

Furthermore --- putting on my mad scientist hat --- maybe this research points to a solution to the problem of diminishing passion in long-term relationships: we just need a pill that stimulates the caudate nucleus and the ventral tegmental area. Whatever the hell those are. I suggest we call it Caudela---

Not enough spice in your marriage? Spouse doesn't send shivers down your spine anymore? Does your heart not burn with longing every moment that you are apart? Do you no longer feel that pulsating stream of joy every day that you go to bed and wake up next to each other?

Ask your doctor about Caudela™

DISCLAIMERS: Use only as directed. Caudela™ may not be suitable for all patients. Side effects may include insomnia, shortness of breath, cardiac arrhythmia, loss of balance, mood swings, stupidity, and selective blindness. Desperate singles and ovulating women should exercise extreme care when using Caudela™. Severe withdrawal symptoms have been observed from discontinued use. Some patients require psychological counseling when beginning or ending treatment. Older subjects, on the other hand, may experience sensations of relief when Caudela™ treatment ends and they can settle down to their saner, duller lives.

In other news, Helmuth reports on a study on orgasm in the fairer sex:

A brain-imaging study shows that, during orgasm, women's brains have about the same pattern of activity as men's. ... Compared to clitoral stimulation alone, orgasm caused greater activation in several parts of the brain, including the same reward region tickled by romantic love, the ventral tegmental area. The main difference between the sexes was a deep brain area called the periaqueductal gray. It's also the sine qua non of the female sexual response in cats, rats, and hamsters; if it's damaged, the animals don't assume a mating position. Other than that, the brain activity "is very much the same as during ejaculation in males," says Holstege.

Most men have, at one time or another, suspected that orgasm might somehow be better for women. Now we know that, well, it's basically the same. I don't know whether to be relieved or disappointed.

Anyway, this stuff is all cool. Sometimes I wish I'd been a neurologist. Alas, that I have but one life to give.

Alternate links for the Fisher et al. study on the neurology of infatuation:

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