Brain Oddities: All You Need Is Love

Brain oddities

Several months ago, my roommate and I were sitting in our kitchen talking about our various relationship issues. After a lengthy discussion, we finally concluded that feelings were just too complicated, and we’d rather be robots.

“But really,” my roommate pointed out, “without love, there would be no, like, books.”

At first this struck me as a pretty bold, sweeping statement, but then I thought, she’s kind of right. Most works of literature (and music, and film, and visual art) that came to my mind are about one form of love or another—love for a partner, or a child, or a place of origin. It’s a cross-cultural universal that can be a source of deep pain or immense joy, and it can dominate your mind.

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From the Archives: Love and Lust in the Brain

Since love is on the brain today, it seemed the perfect opportunity to look back at Dana’s articles on love, lust, and attraction. The selected articles span more than a decade, and included in the mix is a Cerebrum piece from Rutgers’ anthropologist Helen Fisher, who is something of a go-to love expert for the media and is sure to be quoted in numerous articles today.

Brains Do It: Lust, Attraction, and Attachment
By Helen E. Fisher
January 01, 2000  

With classic understatement, anthropologist Helen Fisher suggests that the three emotional systems—lust, attraction, and attachment—“are somewhat disconnected in human beings…” But the situation is not hopeless, Fisher argues; the role of the prefrontal cortex in humans is to control and direct these emotions—if we so choose.

Neurobiology Affects Love and Attraction
By Kathlyn Stone
January 02, 2009  

Research presented at the 2008 Society for Neuroscience meeting revealed aspects of what happens in the brain of someone feeling intense love, as well as the sensory and molecular processes involved in love and mating.

The Chemistry of Love: In Search of the Elusive Human Pheromones
By Brenda Patoine
February, 2009

Chemical messages wafting off other people’s bodies clearly influence sexual attraction and mating behavior in humans. Just don’t call them pheromones – yet. 

The Brain Signature of Love
By Kayt Sukel
February 10, 2011

Neuroscientists are demonstrating that romantic love is represented by a unique pattern of activation in the brain.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

-Ann L. Whitman

Can Brain Science Decipher Love?

Any day now, the stores will be awash in red decorations in preparation for Valentine’s Day. The day is more a clever marketing ploy than a holiday, but nevertheless, when faced with images of red hearts everywhere, people may well start to ponder the status of their relationships (or how to find a relationship) and the general notion of love.

What is love? Is it an intense attraction? A diamond necklace? The feeling parents have for their children? We know it when we feel it, but can we explain it? In her book, Dirty Minds: How Our Brains Influence Love, Sex, and Relationships, released earlier this week, science writer and frequent Dana Foundation contributor Kayt Sukel looks into the neuroscience behind our decisions of the heart.

Dirty Minds Cover

This is not a dry science textbook we’re talking about; with sections like “Hot Monkey Loving,” and “Sexy as a Boar’s Saliva,” you’ll be entertained as you learn about the inner workings of the brain. Written in a conversational tone, the language is easy to follow, and some personal anecdotes add humor and colorful imagery.

In the chapter “Neurobiology of Attraction,” Sukel weighs in on the debate surrounding the existence of human pheromones and how smell can contribute to attraction (something discussed in the 2009 Dana briefing paper, “The Chemistry of Love”). Despite what you may see in some perfume advertisements, scientists have yet to identify a single human chemical as a pheromone.

But certain mammals, such as the boar, are equipped with pheromones to attract mates, says Sukel. The male boar produces androstenone in its saliva, which is replicated in the spray, BOARMATE, used by farms to get female boars “in the mood.” In a funny moment in the book, Sukel describes a spur-of-the-moment experiment, in which she sprays her docile cat Boo Boo with BOARMATE to see if it promotes sexual behavior. It does not—after a few wide-eyed sniffs, the cat bolts.

What’s somewhat unbelievable is that some people actually use BOARMATE as a tool to attract the opposite sex. Even more incredible is that they discuss it openly on the Internet (I’m sorry, but if that was my secret weapon, I think I’d keep it to myself).

When all is said and done, smell can factor into human attraction, but don’t buy into gimmicks. Charles Wysocki of the Monell Chemical Senses Center tells Sukel,

We know there is some unconscious processing of human body odor. And there is some evidence to suggest body odor can help us identify individuals we know or perhaps attract us to others. But there is simply no good, reliable, experimental evidence to support the claim that some pheromone spray you buy on the Internet is going to help make you more attractive to others.

Boo Boo agrees.

If you’d like to learn more about Dirty Minds, several reviews of the book are available online and a trailer is posted on YouTube.

-Ann L. Whitman

PBS miniseries explores emotions

The previews for “This Emotional Life,” which
premieres tonight on PBS, look promising. The three-part miniseries examines
not only psychology and social relationships but also how our brains generate
our wide range of emotions. Along the way, expect stories from both celebrities
and “real people,” as well as insights from a long roster of experts.

“I can feel what I felt, as clearly as I felt it then,” says
Bob, an
Iraq War veteran who is battling post-traumatic stress disorder. Among the famous
faces, John McEnroe appears in the preview—aptly, talking about anger. One of
Dana’s own experts even makes an
on the series’ Web site: Bruce McEwen, author of The End of
Stress as We Know It

Love, anger, fear, happiness. Our emotions, and how they
affect our relationships, can be difficult, challenging, beautiful. I’ll be
watching to learn more about why.

—Dan Gordon

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