This is Your Brain on Love

We all know that the emotion of love originates, not in the heart (or liver), but in the brain. The same is true of sexual desire (turns out, men are always thinking with just one head). But, strangely enough, no one has bothered to make a comprehensive map of exactly which areas of the brain activate for feelings of love and desire.

Until now, dear galleons.

In an international study involving scientists from both the United States and Switzerland, 20 separate studies that mapped love or lust in the brain using fMRIs (you know, monitoring brain activity while looking at sex-ay picture or pictures of significant others) were analyzed and compiled.

The result was the first complete map of love and desire, allowing us to actually follow how desire morphs into love within the brain. Despite the hideous phrase “making love,” sexual desire and love actually activate different (but related) areas of the brain. Ergo, we can still want to slam someone against a wall without wanting to walk down the aisle with them.

There are two primary areas in the brain that trace that path from wanton desire to actual affection- the striatum and the insular cortex (more commonly referred to as the insula). Now, the striatum is this funky bulbous structure inside the brain with a curling tail-like-bit (the purple structure in the following image):

The striatum is located deep within the brain, near the center (inside the forebrain). The insula, on the other hand, is located a little further out, folded between the temporal and frontal lobes. In the following frontal cross-section of the brain, you’ll notice the insula over on the right side of the image.

Now, you might not realize it, but the striatum is also evident on this image. Look for the caudate nucleus and lentiform nucleus– those are parts of the striatum. As you can see, the striatum and insula are located nearby one another.

That area, dear galleons, is the home of love and desire in the brain.

Now, some of you might be flaring your nostrils at me, sputtering about how the amygdala, widely known to be deeply involved in the processing of emotional events, wasn’t listed. Calm the fuck down. The limbic system (of which the amygdala is a part) actually works with the striatum, as does the cerebral cortex (which is where the insula comes in). Remember, the brain’s this complex, intricate system, and I’m just bastardizing it with my woefully inadequate words. Suffice to say, the striatum (the primary basal ganglia input center) is taking in information from places like the insula and the amygdala, okay?

So, love and desire actually activate very different sections of the striatum. See, the striatum is one of those big names in the reward system of the brain. It’s taking in information from the limbic system and cerebral cortex, information relating to pleasure and novelty. Now, when you’re feeling the need to ride someone until neither of you can walk, you’re using a section of the striatum that’s activated by things that are inherently pleasurable. Like food. And sex. But when your crazed rabbit humping starts to move into the realm of love, a different part of the striatum is activating. This is the part involved in behavioral conditioning and reward. Here, something (or someone) paired with one of those inherently pleasurable activities is given its own inherent value.

So yes, at first, it might just be about the sex. Or the conversation (What? Intellectual blokes are dead sexy). But eventually, if you are sexing up the same person again and again, or are spending night after night in exciting debates and conversations… well, then that person is going to develop their own inherent value. In your brain, they are now a source of pleasure.

And you, my galleons, find yourselves in love.

Because the striatum is so involved in the pleasure/reward system of the brain, it plays a strong role in drug addiction as well. As Jim Pfaus, co-author of the study, said, “Love is actually a habit that is formed from sexual desire as desire is rewarded. It works the same way in the brain as when people become addicted to drugs.”

Like it or not, it looks like Ke$ha had it right.


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