So if love is in the brain and not the heart, is there 'love at first sight' after all? The science says yes, according to the researchers, who found falling in love only takes about a fifth of a second.
Their meta-analysis revealed that when a person falls in love, 12 areas of the brain work in tandem to release euphoria-inducing chemicals such as dopamine, oxytocin, adrenaline and vasopression. The love feeling also affects sophisticated cognitive functions, such as mental representation, metaphors and body image, which may explain why peoples' abilities and behaviors are all over the psychology map when they are in a new relationship.
Other researchers also found blood levels of nerve growth factor (NGF), the molecule involved in the social chemistry of humans, also increased. NGF levels were significantly higher in couples who had just fallen in love.
"These results confirm love has a scientific basis," says Ortigue.
The findings have interest for neuroscience and mental health research because when relationships don't work out, it can be a significant cause of emotional stress and depression. "It's another probe into the brain and into the mind of a patient," says Ortigue. "By understanding why they fall in love and why they are so heartbroken, they can use new therapies."
Even better, by identifying the parts of the brain stimulated by love, doctors and therapists can better understand the pains of love-sick patients and maybe ease 'heartbreak'.
The study also shows different parts of the brain fall for love. For example, unconditional love, such as that between a mother and a child, is sparked by the common and different brain areas, including the middle of the brain. Passionate love is sparked by the reward part of the brain, and also associative cognitive brain areas that have higher-order cognitive functions, such as body image.
So, seriously, does your heart fall in love or the brain? Final answer!
"That's a tricky question always," says Ortigue. "I would say the brain, but the heart is also related because the complex concept of love is formed by both bottom-up and top-down processes from the brain to the heart and vice versa. For instance, activation in some parts of the brain can generate stimulations to the heart, butterflies in the stomach. Some symptoms we sometimes feel as a manifestation of the heart may sometimes be coming from the brain."
That will have to do for now. Love remains one of the biggest mysteries in science until further notice.
Citation: Stephanie Ortigue, Francesco Bianchi-Demicheli, Nisa Patel, Chris Frum and James W. Lewis, 'Neuroimaging of Love: fMRI Meta-Analysis Evidence toward New Perspectives in Sexual Medicine', The Journal of Sexual Medicine, DOI: 10.1111/j.1743-6109.2010.01999.x