Written by A/Prof Lim Tit Meng, Chief Executive, Science Centre Singapore

It’s the season, or rather, day of cherubic angels, love bands, flowers, and spontaneous, elaborate declarations of affection. Everywhere one turns, the intangible becomes really evident on this one day we all celebrate either willingly, or through some form of compulsion! Romantic love has been the subject of many elegant poems, beautiful heart wrenching songs and colourful caricatures in plays. It is the one human emotion that people experience yet often struggle to explain!

For the uninitiated, the temptation is great to cry out “Bah, humbug!”, but the physical manifestation and experience of romantic love does turn some into a sloppy mess. The experience binds tongues; sends the pulses racing and makes them feel emotionally heightened and “complete”. So just what is the experience of love and where does it reside? Excuse us while we prep our gear; don our protective eye wear and those silly gowns that make us look like the little green men from Mars… Err, that’s stereotyping us scientists just a tad. (Ah! But what the heck, might as well indulge, since stereotypes and clichés are always going to be bandied about!) We are about to embark on decades of work all meant to get at the very core of the most celebrated human emotion and there might just be some truth in those clichéd statements after all!

Cliché 1: Love is a drug.

Not far from the truth this one! Neuroscientists at Emory University have discovered that monogamous bonding (i.e. faithful pairing for life, like mandarin ducks) elicits the same brain reward circuits as those who are literally on narcotics such as cocaine or heroin. The same is true for the pain of separation which involves the same areas of the brain dealing with withdrawal symptoms. Breaking up is one big, prolonged withdrawal! But gosh, let’s not even go there. Sweeping under carpet now!

Cliché 2: Opposites attract!

Some psychologists definitely agree that attraction is based on personality types. One psychologist has even ventured to define the personality types that would influence our choice of mate. She claims that just like social grouping, we would choose mates that are really similar to our personality types. The opinions are her own (watch video). Personally, I think this warrants more research and perhaps we’ll never know!

Cliché 3: Love is in the air, Love is a chemical attraction

The classic love song “Love is in the air” by John Paul Young does seem to resonate with some, and has some basis. Not too long ago, the media peaked up on pheromones and their role in influencing attraction. Pheromones were all the rage and perfume lines were being churned out! (People instantly forgot about the role of neurotransmitters, important chemicals which make us feel happy or anxious.) So, who says experiments can’t be sexy and scientists don’t have a sense of humour heh! A sweaty shirt experiment?! Now scientists have discovered other compounds which can influence moods. These compounds are excreted in tears, and a woman’s tears have been found to have a profound effect on the opposite sex. Does that explain why the non-metrosexual men turn and run in the opposite direction at the first sight of a tear torrent?

The final biggy is not so much a cliché. It’s a chart, sorry couldn’t help it. Just had to drop one, I’m hard wired to do so. (Hah! Another stereotype) So, here goes the piece de resistance…

Scientific American Feb 2011 Issue Graphics
Love in the Brain – Brain Scans reveal where love is experienced in the brain. (Scientific American Graphics Feb 2011)

You didn’t need a chart to know this, did you? What the chart is saying just confirms what you already know! Pfft! Scientists. Didn’t need to stick those poor chaps into the frightfully claustrophobic white thingy, yup, the one with the complicated name! The MRI (aka the chart) tells us that multiple areas of the brain are involved in our experience of romantic love. This passion network creates sensations of “attraction, arousal, pleasure… and obsession”, so I’ll quietly leave you to have a mind blowing time and, wish multiple areas of your brain light up today!

Posted by:blogscs

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