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The Brain in Love

Article in Scientific American · April 2004

DOI: 10.1038/scientificamerican0404-104


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Barbara B Smuts
University of Michigan


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The Brain in Love


behaviors to consider their underlying created a new imperative for mother and
WHY WE LOVE: brain mechanisms. Most people think of father to cooperate in child-rearing. Ro-
THE NATURE AND romantic love as a feeling. Fisher, how- mantic love, she contests, drove ancestral
ever, views it as a drive so powerful that women and men to come together long
it can override other drives, such as enough to conceive, whereas attachment,
by Helen Fisher
Henry Holt, New hunger and thirst, render the most digni- another complex of feelings with a dif-
York, 2004 ($25) fied person a fool, or bring rapture to an ferent chemical basis, kept them togeth-
unassuming wallflower. er long enough to support a child until
This original hypothesis is consistent weaning (about four years). Evidence in-
A male baboon named with the neurochemistry of love. While dicates that as attachment grows, passion
Sherlock sat on a cliff, unable to emphasizing the complex and subtle in- recedes. Thus, the same feelings that
take his eyes off his favorite female, Cy- terplay among multiple brain chemicals, bring parents together often force them
belle, as she foraged far below. Each time Fisher argues convincingly that dopa- apart, as one or both fall in love with
Cybelle approached another adult male, mine deserves center stage. This neuro- someone new. In this scenario, broken
Sherlock froze with tension, only to relax transmitter drives animals to seek re- hearts and self-defeating crimes of pas-
again when she ignored a potential rival. wards, such as food and sex, and is also sion become the unfortunate by-products
Finally, Cybelle glanced up and met his essential to the pleasure experienced of a biological system that usually facili-
gaze. Instantly Sherlock flattened his ears when such drives are satisfied. Fisher tates reproduction.
and narrowed his eyes in what baboon thinks that dopamine’s action can ex- Fisher’s theory of how human pair-
researchers call the come-hither face. It plain both the highs of romantic passion
worked; seconds later Cybelle sat by her (dopamine rising) and the lows of rejec-
guy, grooming him with gusto. tion (dopamine falling). Citing evidence
After observing many similar scenar- from studies of humans and other ani-
ios, I realized that baboons, like humans, mals, she also demonstrates marked par-
develop intense attractions to particular allels between the behaviors, feelings and
members of the opposite sex. Baboon chemicals that underlie romantic love
heterosexual partnerships bear an in- and those associated with substance ad-
triguing resemblance to ours, but they diction. Like the alcoholic who feels com-
also differ in important ways. For in- pelled to drink, the impassioned lover
stance, baboons can simultaneously be cries that he will die without his beloved.
“in love” with more than one individual, Dying of a broken heart is, of course,
a capacity that, according to anthropol- not adaptive, and neither is forsaking
ogist Helen Fisher, most humans lack. family and fortune to pursue a sweet-
Fisher is well known for her three heart to the ends of the earth. Why then,
previous books (The Sex Contract, Fisher asks, has evolution burdened hu-
Anatomy of Love and The First Sex), mans with such seemingly irrational pas- OLIVE BABOONS, an adult female (left) and male,
which bring an evolutionary perspective sions? Drawing on evidence from living snuggle during an afternoon rest period in Kenya.

to myriad aspects of sex, love, and sex primates, paleontology and diverse cul- Among baboons, only pairs who have formed
long-term friendships have been observed in
differences. This book is the best, in my tures, she argues that the evolution of such intimate contact.
view, because it goes beyond observable large-brained, helpless hominid infants


bonding evolved is just one of several hy-
does not discuss these alternatives. Simi- by Carl Zimmer. Free Press, New York, 2004 ($26)
larly, some of her ideas about love’s Thomas Willis, an eminent physician in 17th-century England, published
chemistry are quite speculative (which in 1664 a book that became a medical classic: Cerebri anatome, or The
she fully acknowledges). No one familiar Anatomy of the Brain, based on his pioneering and painstaking dissections
with the evidence, however, can disagree of human brains. Science writer Zimmer, describing the work and its
that romantic love is a human universal consequences, says that Willis and his team had produced more than a
that requires an evolutionary explana- map of the brain. “They had, for the first time, created a unified treatment
tion, and Fisher, more than any other sci- of the brain and the nerves.” And to far-reaching effect. Willis “did for the
entist, has brought this important point brain and nerves what William Harvey had done for the heart and blood: made
to public awareness. them a subject of modern scientific study.” Zimmer draws a vivid picture of the
Like the words of a talented lover, background against which Willis and other scientists of the time worked.
Fisher’s prose is charming and engaging.
Love poems, both modern and classic,
by David Lindley. Joseph Henry Press, Washington, D.C., 2003 ($27.95)
enliven her narrative, along with poi-
William Thomson, Lord Kelvin (1824–1907), made major contributions to 19th-century
gnant examples of romantic passion from
physics and technology but is mainly known today through the attachment of his name
other times and cultures. One chapter is
to a scale of temperature. Lindley, an astrophysicist who now focuses on writing about
a litany to passion in other animals, a
science, brings Kelvin to life in this excellent biography. The young Kelvin, Lindley
vivid reminder that we are not the only
writes, “made astonishing progress in the quest to understand the nature of heat, work,
species that feels deeply. Another pro-
and energy, and in the parallel effort to elucidate the nature of electricity and
vides new insight into the obsessive at-
magnetism.” Kelvin’s theory of undersea signal transmission was fundamental for the
tempts of abandoned lovers to rekindle
installation of transatlantic cables, and he was involved in work
romance. Toward the end of the book,
on power generation and navigation instruments. The “tragedy”
Fisher helps to redeem the self-help
of the book’s title is that the old Kelvin became something of a
genre, rooting her advice in hard science.
crank, sticking “with blind stubbornness” to ideas about
She shows how you might “trick the
radioactivity, electromagnetism and the age of the earth in the
brain” to maintain enduring passion or
face of contrary evidence accumulating at the turn of the
recover more quickly from the pain of re-
century. But if Kelvin could come back today, Lindley says, he
jection: “Someone is camping in your
“would after being taken aback by the dizzying scope of modern
brain,” she reminds us, and “you must
theoretical physics decide that, after all, it was exactly what he
throw the scoundrel out.” Engaging in
had been trying to say.”
activities known to increase dopamine
might help; after all, love is not our only SIX MODERN PLAGUES: AND HOW WE ARE CAUSING THEM
source of intense pleasure. by Mark Jerome Walters. Island Press, Washington, D.C., 2003 ($22)
In hands as skilled and sensitive as In the late 1960s the U.S. surgeon general declared that Americans could “close the book
Fisher’s, scientific analysis of love only on infectious diseases.” In 1999 the World Health Organization reported
adds to its magic. If you forgot to give that “diseases that seemed to be subdued ... are fighting back with
your beloved a gift on Valentine’s Day, renewed ferocity.” And then there are the new or transformed dis-
it’s not too late to woo him or her anew eases that have made headlines in recent years. Walters, a veteri-
with this book, which is likely to fasci- narian and journalist, focuses on six of them: mad cow disease, AIDS,
nate and delight anyone who has ever salmonella DT 104, Lyme disease, hantavirus and West Nile virus. In
been in love. an epilogue, he briefly describes the latest headline maker, severe
acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). “The larger story,” he writes, “is
Barbara Smuts is a professor in the not simply that humans and other animals are falling victim to new
psychology department at the University diseases; it is that we are causing or exacerbating many of them, not
of Michigan at Ann Arbor. She is least of all through the radical changes we have made to the natural environment.”
author of Sex and Friendship in
Baboons (reprinted with a new preface, All the books reviewed are available for purchase through
Harvard University Press, 1999). SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN 105

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