The Romantic Brain

Guest post by Kayt Sukel

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Image: Seimi Rurup

Leading up to Valentine’s Day, you can’t help being inundated with advertisements for cards, chocolates and jewelry–those “perfect” gifts to show that one special person how much you love them. The world has love on the brain. But what are the latest findings regarding the brain in love?

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The Brain in Love

shutterstock_94532341Love exists in vastly different societies around the world. It occupies our mind and drives us to create art, write stories, and even commit acts of violence. Religion, values, and other cultural factors influence who we select as a partner. During a talk at the Secret Science Club, a science lecture series held at the Bell House in Brooklyn, Helen Fisher, Ph.D., asked “Are we naturally drawn to some people for biological as well as cultural reasons?”

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From the Archives: Valentine Reading List

Since talk of love is all the rage this week, let’s look back at a few of our past articles on love and attachment. First up is a Cerebrum essay by Rutgers anthropologist Helen Fisher that — after 15 years — is still on our Top 10 list of most-popular pages on dana.org.

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Image: Beatriz Gascon J/Shutterstock

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The Biology of Love: Who We Choose and Why

Valentine’s Day inspires a post about someone who has dedicated her career to studying the science behind attraction and desire. For more than thirty years, Helen Fisher, Ph.D., has studied the link between brain chemistry and romantic love, in hopes of better understanding the patterns that occur when human beings choose their mates.

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Oxytocin: Separating Hype from Hope

These days it seems like claims about the hormone oxytocin are everywhere. A quick Google news search of the word “oxytocin” results in recent articles titled everything from “Why do Men Love Breasts? Titillating Theory Explains Release of Neurochemical Oxytocin,” to “Why God Doesn’t Go Away,” to “Can Oxytocin Treat Autism?” Theories linking oxytocin to a range of pro-social and altruistic behaviors has earned it nicknames such as the “love chemical,” “morale molecule,” and “trust hormone.” But are these names rooted in scientific fact?

The Dana Foundation’s latest briefing paper, “One Molecule for Love, Trust, and Morality?” separates hype from hope by delving into the latest oxytocin research and checking in with experts such as neuroethicist Martha Farah, Ph.D., and neurophilosopher Patricia Churchland, Ph.D., both Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives members.

While Farah and Churchland warn of misperceptions brought on by oversimplified reporting, Farah and others also express cautious enthusiasm about the hormone’s potential applications.

“There is a lot of hype out there,” Farah confers. But she is quick to add: “Oxytocin research does deserve the attention it’s been getting, because it represents a beautiful example of how neuroscience can illuminate important aspects of psychology and even what one might call the ‘human experience.’”

Farah is not alone in her cautious enthusiasm about oxytocin. As research on oxytocin has exploded–more than 40 clinical trials are underway investigating oxytocin as a potential treatment for a range of behavioral and psychiatric disorders–some scientists are ringing a warning bell about how little is really known about the brain chemical everyone suddenly seems to love.

Read the briefing paper here.

–Ann L. Whitman

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