This is Your Brain in Love: The Stanford Love Competition Shows What Love Looks Like on an MRI

We hear it so often it’s almost a cliché, one I’m sure I’ve repeat­ed with­out giv­ing it much thought: You can’t mea­sure love in a lab­o­ra­to­ry. But we prob­a­bly can, in fact. Or at least neu­ro­sci­en­tists can. Last year, one joint Chi­nese and Amer­i­can team of neu­ro­sci­en­tists did just that, defin­ing the feel­ing we call love as “a moti­va­tion­al state asso­ci­at­ed with a desire to enter or main­tain a close rela­tion­ship with a spe­cif­ic oth­er per­son.” This doesn’t cov­er the love of pets, food, or sun­sets, but it gets at what we cel­e­brate with can­dy and red tchotchkes every year around this time, as well as the love we have for friends or fam­i­ly.

Using fMRI scans of three groups of 100 men and women, the researchers found that an “in-love group had more increased activ­i­ty across sev­er­al brain regions involved in reward, moti­va­tion, emo­tion, and social func­tion­ing,” reports Med­ical Dai­ly. The longer peo­ple had been “in love,” the greater the brain activ­i­ty in these regions. Whether the brain states cause the emo­tion, or the emo­tion caus­es the brain states, or they are one in the same, I can’t say, but the fact remains: love can be quan­tifi­ably mea­sured.

Mean­while, Brent Hoff sep­a­rate­ly decid­ed to exploit this fact for what he calls a “Love Com­pe­ti­tion.” With the help of Stanford’s Cen­ter for Cog­ni­tive Neu­ro­bi­o­log­i­cal Imag­ing (CNI), Hoff enlist­ed sev­en con­tes­tants of vary­ing ages—from 10 to 75—and gen­ders to enter an fMRI machine and “love some­one as hard as they can” for five min­utes. Who­ev­er gen­er­ates the most activ­i­ty in regions “pro­duc­ing the neu­ro­chem­i­cal expe­ri­ence of love” wins. Gives you the warm fuzzies, right?

While “the idea that love can be mea­sured may seem deeply unro­man­tic,” writes Aeon mag­a­zine, “the results were any­thing but.” The con­tes­tants were not restrict­ed to roman­tic love. Ten-year-old Milo gives his love to a new baby cousin, because “she’s very cute.” Dr. Bob Dougher­ty of CNI pre­dicts ear­ly on that an “old­er guy” like him­self might win because expe­ri­ence would bet­ter help him con­trol the emo­tion. But at the begin­ning, it’s any­one’s game. Watch the com­pe­ti­tion above and find out who wins.

Giv­en that this is billed as the “1st Annu­al Love Com­pe­ti­tion,” might we expect anoth­er this year?

Relat­ed Con­tent:

What is Love? BBC Phi­los­o­phy Ani­ma­tions Fea­ture Sartre, Freud, Aristo­phanes, Dawkins & More

This Is Your Brain on Jane Austen: The Neu­ro­science of Read­ing Great Lit­er­a­ture

Steven Pinker Explains the Neu­ro­science of Swear­ing (NSFW)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Claudia says:

    The arti­cle said we’d see who won the com­pe­ti­tion. I watched twice and still do not know the answer. Was it the ten year old boy? Thanks, Clau­dia

  • annie says:

    Clau­dia, same here. I feel like I missed some­thing?? I was think­ing it was one of the cou­ple who were mar­ried 50 years. Or maybe they all won some­thing just by par­tic­i­pat­ing. It looked like the first brain lit up the most. I am think­ing that was Don.

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