Researchers find brain's 'sweet spot' for love in neurological patient

February 14, 2014 by William Harms
These fMRI scans show brain regions activated by sexual desire (in blue) compared to love (in pink) in healthy patients. The overlap in red illustrates how a patient’s brain lesion affected the area in the brain associated with decision-making in love. Credit: Chris Frum and James Lewis/West Virginia University; Robin Weiss/University of Chicago

(Medical Xpress)—A region deep inside the brain controls how quickly people make decisions about love, according to new research at the University of Chicago.

The finding, made in an examination of a 48-year-old man who suffered a stroke, provides the first causal clinical evidence that an area of the called the anterior insula "plays an instrumental role in ," said UChicago neuroscientist Stephanie Cacioppo, lead author of the study.

In an earlier paper that analyzed research on the topic, Cacioppo and colleagues defined love as "an intentional state for intense [and long-term] longing for union with another" while lust, or , is characterized by an intentional state for a short-term, pleasurable goal.

In this study, the patient made decisions normally about lust but showed slower reaction times when making decisions about love, in contrast to neurologically typical participants matched on age, gender and ethnicity. The findings are presented in a paper, "Selective Decision-Making Deficit in Love Following Damage to the Anterior Insula," published in the journal Current Trends in Neurology.

"This distinction has been interpreted to mean that desire is a relatively concrete representation of sensory experiences, while love is a more abstract representation of those experiences," said Cacioppo, a research associate and assistant professor in psychology. The new data suggest that the posterior insula, which affects sensation and motor control, is implicated in feelings of lust or desire, while the anterior insula has a role in the more abstract representations involved in love.

In the earlier paper, "The Common Neural Bases Between Sexual Desire and Love: A Multilevel Kernel Density fMRI Analysis," Cacioppo and colleagues examined a number of studies of brain scans that looked at differences between love and lust.

The studies showed consistently that the anterior insula was associated with love, and the posterior insula was associated with lust. However, as in all fMRI studies, the findings were correlational.

"We reasoned that if the anterior insula was the origin of the love response, we would find evidence for that in brain scans of someone whose anterior insula was damaged," she said.

In the study, researchers examined a 48-year-old heterosexual male in Argentina, who had suffered a stroke that damaged the function of his anterior insula. He was matched with a control group of seven Argentinian heterosexual men of the same age who had healthy anterior insula.

The patient and the control group were shown 40 photographs at random of attractive, young women dressed in appealing, short and long dresses and asked whether these women were objects of sexual desire or love. The patient with the damaged anterior insula showed a much slower response when asked if the women in the photos could be objects of love.

"The current work makes it possible to disentangle love from other biological drives," the authors wrote. Such studies also could help researchers examine feelings of love by studying neurological activity rather than subjective questionnaires.

Explore further: I want to know where love is: Research develops first brain map of love and desire

More information: Cacioppo S., Couto B., Bolmont M., Sedeno L., Frum C., Lewis, J. W., Manes F., Ibanez A., Cacioppo, J. T. (2013) "Selective decision-making deficit in love following damage to the anterior insula." Current Trends in Neurology. 7, 15-19.

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not rated yet Feb 14, 2014
That's a pretty geeky Valentine article as they go.

Anyone got an idea of what makes a useful sample size for a study of this kind? A 1:7 comparison seems a bit narrow. How can we tell he isn't just waiting for the 'right one'?

Very cool that they might tie love down to a physical basis (other than the norm). It'll be interesting to see what the evolutionary biologists make of that one.
not rated yet Feb 14, 2014
These kinds of studies have a sample size equal to the number of individuals who show the phenotype, or in this case, behaviour. So you're stuck with what you got, and it normally all resides with one individual, at least initially.

"... 'right one?'" Well I'm not a neuroscientist and I can't tell you the answer :P. Although from my experience as a cellular and molecular biologist, conclusions that seem biased or exclusive of alternate explanations, generally aren't. It wasn't until I really started to understand how all these systems interact that the reasoning became more apparent. What seems like a, "ah-hah! I got you!" really reminds you that they probably already had that same thought and found it lacking. Ive had many ideas that made perfect sense but when tested, they just dont work! its quite frustrating but thats science for you.

Of course, what you said may be correct, but this paper is purely correlational and they say as much, directly in the abstract.
not rated yet Feb 15, 2014
Why do they assume that the photographed women can not be both objects of Love and lust? Why do they assume that females suitable for Love are less sexually appealing?

They do well to characterise the property of Love they are going to investigate, but then make the error of generalising their findings to all forms of Love including those that do not fall into their narrow definition. They make the error of calling Love a biological drive which is only true under some conditions and is still a debatable point.

For instance an activity, person, object or concept can be Loved. They consider only love of another person, which is perfectly OK because they have declared that bias, but then attempt to impose their definition over all others.

Sloppy work. Confuses rather than clarifies the issue of Love (requires careful interpretation to be useful at all). Attempts to hijack the word 'Love' by associating it only with their own definition extremely poor scientific etiquette).

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