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  • Dan Connors

Can you scientifically measure Love?

Wired for Love: A Neuroscientist's Journey Through Romance, Loss, and the Essence of Human Connection

Is the human brain wired to be self-sufficient, or is it an imperfect organ ultimately dependent on connecting with other brains, deeply, to function at its best? Can science really tell us when we're in love? And do scientists look at their own personal lives to work out complex psychological problems?

These are some of the questions looked at by "Dr Love" Stephanie Cacioppo in her new book on love and the brain. She is a professor of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience at the University of Chicago, has written many research papers on the topic, but this is her first book.

One would think that love, like religion and humor, is something that scientists shy away from studying. It's hard to define, loaded with messy emotional meanings, and impossible to test for. But our progress in understanding the workings of the brain make it easier to see what areas are involved in just about anything that we experience, and love is no exception.

Using high tech devices like functional MRI (fMRI) machines, researchers like Dr. Cacioppo can see exactly what areas of the brain light up when exposed to stimuli of people or things that the subject is already in love with. She came up with what was playfully called a "love machine" that measured changes in the body when exposed to different photographs. Subjects could test their own levels of love-sickness by sitting in the machine and seeing what prompts the strongest responses.

Stimuli of love light up twelve different areas of the human brain, some very primitive and some surprisingly high-level. These responses lead to measurably improved brain functioning on a variety of tasks. So maybe we are wired for love. Physical desire is certainly a part of that response, but there is something larger that complements pure lust and helps the brain to function at its best.

Humans are built for connection. By finding friends and lovers, we expand ourselves and our abilities through close relationships. Choosing a partner is sometimes an exercise in realizing our own shortcomings and looking for someone who is different from us but complementary- making us more whole than we were before. Deep connections make us physically, emotionally, and cognitively stronger. We sleep better, have better health, and fewer addictions.

The author gives us a anagram called GRACE that could help expand our ability to love.

G= Gratitude. "Every day, try writing down five things that you truly appreciate. Studies show that such simple exercises can significantly improve subjective well-being and reduce feelings of loneliness."

R= Reciprocity. "Being shown respect, being depended upon, being made to understand your own importance—all these things can give a lonely person a sense of worth and belonging that decreases feelings of isolation."

A= Altruism. "Volunteer—at the library, the running club, the Red Cross, you name it. Be part of something bigger than yourself. Helping others, sharing your knowledge, feeling a sense of mission—all this will give you a feeling of self-expansion that is similar to what people experience when they’re in a loving relationship…"

C=Choice. "You can decide right now—yes, right now—if you want to feel lonely or happy. When we look at psychological interventions for lonely people, changing their attitudes and outlook has more effect on their loneliness ratings than increasing opportunities for social contact."

E=Enjoyment. "Science shows that enjoyment is a predictor of well-being and life satisfaction. Luckily, positive events tend to occur more often than negative ones. Yet not everyone makes a point of enjoying them, a process psychologists call capitalization. Sharing good news and good times with others helps increase positive emotions and reduce loneliness."

Interspersed with all of this scientific study, Cacioppo tells the moving story of her marriage to her late husband John. Devoted to her work, the author stayed single well into her 30's and then fell for John Cacioppo, aka "Dr. Loneliness", who was also a researcher and author of books and scientific studies on the needs for human connection. Though he was over 20 years her senior, Stephanie writes glowingly about their relationship and how much it taught her about the very field she was studying. The marriage was brief, however, as he died from cancer after just 7 years of marriage. The author opens up her personal life and goes through a lot of the grief that she experienced after losing him, and it puts a decidedly personal spin on the scientific jargon about risking pain and becoming vulnerable.

Wired for Love is a short book, but it lets us into the world of a person who has studied the phenomenon of love most of her life. I close with an interview she did with about why her research about love is so important.

"I think both poetry and neuroscience are necessary to understand the full meaning of love. I’m biased in this response because I’m a poet at heart. I think they can both give us a different sense of the beauty of this invisible bond that binds all of us together and that also binds two human beings together just by choice alone. If I can have only one key message for today, it would be from Maya Angelou, who encourages people, through her beautiful writing, to have enough courage to trust love one more time, always one more time. That’s something that I live and breathe every day. Have enough courage to trust love one more time and always one more time."

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