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