Your Brain on Love: The Fascinating Biochemical Reactions That Make Sparks Fly
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The following is an excerpt from Love 2.0: How Our Supreme Emotion Affects Everything We Feel, Think, Do, and Become.
Love on the Brain
When you and another truly connect, love reverberates between you. In the very moment that you experience positivity resonance, your brain syncs up with the other person’s brain. Within each moment of love, you and the other are on the same wave length. As your respective brainwaves each mirror the other, each of you—moment-by-moment— changes each other’s mind.
At least this is what I’ve been telling you. How do you know it really happens? You can’t see this brain synchrony surface within real-time after all. What you’d need is some way to peer inside two people’s heads while they chatted so that you can tell whether or not their respective brain activity really does march along in time together. This would tell you whether they really “click.” Only with this sort of X-ray vision could you decide whether love is better described as a solo act—an emotion contained within the boundaries of the person feeling it—or a duet or ensemble, performed by a duo or group. That sort of X-ray vision sounds like science fiction.
Yet turning science fiction into science fact is what scientists and engineers love most. Breakthrough work by neuroscientist Uri Hasson, of Princeton University, has done just that. He and his team have found ways to measure multiple brains connecting through conversation. The obstacles they faced to do this were large. First, brain scanners are loud machines—no place to carry on actual conversations. Second, they’re also extraordinarily expensive, both to buy and to use. Almost all brain imaging studies thus scan just one person’s brain at a time. Yet with clever engineering and clever experimental logistics, Hasson’s team cleared both obstacles. They created a custom optic microphone that cancelled out the noise of the scanner without distorting the delicate brain signals his team sought to capture. The logistics feat was to mimic a natural conversation by pulling it apart in time.
Suppose, for a moment, you were stranded at the airport last week. Your plane to Miami was delayed for hours. Bored with your reading and web-browsing, you got to talking to another stranded passenger, a lively young college student on her way home for break. You’d been chatting back-and-forth for a while, every so often, meeting eyes and sharing smiles. The conversation was very natural, like you were friends already. Somehow or another, she got to telling you about her crazy high school prom experience. In great detail, she launched into how she happened to have two dates to the same prom, how she ended up having only five minutes to get dressed and ready for the prom after a full day of scuba-diving; how, on her way to after-prom festivities, she crashed her boyfriend’s car in the wee hours of the morning; and then how she completely lucked out of getting ticketed (or arrested!) by the officer who witnessed her accident. She’s a good story-teller: You hung on her every word. Fifteen minutes melted away as she shared all the twists and turns of her hapless prom night. It’s clear, too, that you both enjoyed the chance to connect, rather than read, while you waited for your plane together.
Okay, now it’s time for a set change: Instead of in an airport terminal, this conversation actually unfolded in a brain imaging lab at Princeton University. And instead of sitting side-by-side with your impromptu friend, Hasson’s team actually invited her to visit the lab weeks ago, and they audio-recorded her entire prom story while scanning her brain’s activity with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI.) You’re here lying in the scanner today, listening to her story over fancy headphones, while Hasson’s team records your own brain activity. After you get out of the scanner, they ask you to report on what you heard in as much detail as possible. This takes a while; hers was a long, circuitous story after all.