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Social neuroscience of love

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Although philosophers, psychologists, artists, and poets have been interested in the nature and origin of passionate love throughout the ages, only in the 1960s have social psychologists begun to systematically investigate its complexity (Berscheid & Hatfield 1969, Hatfield & Rapson 1993, Hatfield & Rapson 2009). And in the last decade did social neuroscientists begin to contribute to a better understanding of passionate love by unraveling its specific network in the human brain (Ortigue et al. 2010 for review). In the present article, we review what social psychologists and social neuroscientists have learned about the complex phenomenon of passionate love, present the most relevant data on human brain network (as shown by electroencephalogram and/or functional magnetic resonance imaging), which is thought to be involved in the physiology of passionate love, and compare the neuroimaging results with other types of love (such as maternal love). Based on recent neuroimaging findings, passionate love does not only activate subcortical brain areas mediating basic emotions, reward or motivation, but also higher-order cortical brain areas that are involved in social cognition, attention, memory, mental associations, and self-representation.
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Clinical Neuropsychiatry (2012) 9, 1,
© 2012 Giovanni Fioriti Editore s.r.l.
3-13
SUBMITTED JANUARY 2012, ACCEPTED FEBRUARY 2012
SOCIAL NEUROSCIENCE OF LOVE
Stephanie Cacioppo, Francesco Bianchi-Demicheli,
Elaine Hatfield, Richard L. Rapson
Abstract
Although philosophers, psychologists, artists, and poets have been interested in the nature and origin of passionate
love throughout the ages, only in the 1960s have social psychologists begun to systematically investigate its complexity
(Berscheid & Hatfield 1969, Hatfield & Rapson 1993, Hatfield & Rapson 2009). And in the last decade did social
neuroscientists begin to contribute to a better understanding of passionate love by unraveling its specific network in
the human brain (Ortigue et al. 2010 for review). In the present article, we review what social psychologists and social
neuroscientists have learned about the complex phenomenon of passionate love, present the most relevant data on
human brain network (as shown by electroencephalogram and/or functional magnetic resonance imaging), which is
thought to be involved in the physiology of passionate love, and compare the neuroimaging results with other types of
love (such as maternal love). Based on recent neuroimaging findings, passionate love does not only activate subcortical
brain areas mediating basic emotions, reward or motivation, but also higher-order cortical brain areas that are involved
in social cognition, attention, memory, mental associations, and self-representation.
Key words: passionate love, maternal love, neuroimaging, social cognition, attention, memory, mental associations,
and self-representation
Declaration of interest: none
Stephanie Cacioppo1,2
Francesco Bianchi-Demicheli1,
Elaine Hatfield3, Richard L. Rapson3
1. University of Geneva
2. Syracuse University
3. University of Hawaii
Corresponding author
Prof. Stephanie Cacioppo, Ph.D., Section of Psychology, 4172, FPSE, University of Geneva
Bd du Pont-d’Arve 40 - 1211 Geneva 4, Switzerland.
Ph +41 (0)22 379 9163, fax +41 (0)22 379 9020, stephanie.n.cacioppo@gmail.com
view with other types of love (such as maternal love)
and other biological drives (such as sexual desire). We
begin with the paper’s main point and often a common
source of confusion i.e., the definition of love.
Definition of passionate love
Love carries many definitions, but the one used
here is the existence of an emotional state involving
chemical, cognitive, rewarding and goal-directed
behavioral components. Passionate love is defined as
“a state of intense longing for union with another”
(Hatfield & Rapson 1987) that is characterized by a
motivated and goal-directed mental state (Hatfield &
Sprecher 1986, Hatfield & Rapson 2009)
For years, most social psychologists have agreed
that passionate love is an emotion.
In a seminal article, Kurt W. Fischer and his
colleagues (1990) characterized emotions this way:
At dawn of its 20th anniversary, social neuroscience
is emerging as a strong and essential multidisciplinary
field dedicated to the study of the complexity of the social
brain and relationships (Cacioppo & Berntson 1992,
2005; Cacioppo et al. 2000; Hatfield et al. 1994). Among
the specific questions that social neuroscientists are
actively investigating are the effects of social factors on
brain and biological functioning; the biological
mechanisms underlying social cognition and emotions,
social connections, social interactions; the supposed
existence of specialized circuits for social functions; and
the nature of interdependencies between genes and social
environments (Cacioppo & Ortigue 2011). Accordingly,
social neuroscience constitutes an astonishing field for
the study of complex phenomena such as the nature and
origin of love in the human brain (Cacioppo & Ortigue
2011). In the present article, we report what theorists,
psychologists, and researchers in social neuroscience
have learned about the complex phenomenon of
passionate love over the past decades, and compare this
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Stephanie Cacioppo et al.
Clinical Neuropsychiatry (2012) 9, 1
Emotions are complex functional wholes including
appraisals or appreciations, patterned physiological
processes, action tendencies, subjective feelings,
expressions, and instrumental behaviors” (p. 85).
That said, neuroscientists are still divided as to
whether passionate love is an emotion (see Bartels &
Zeki 2000, Hatfield & Rapson 2002) or is not an
emotion (see Diamond 2004, Diamond 2003). To
address this question, scholars have interviewed men
and women from a variety of cultures and of different
ages using prototype analyses, and taken a social
categorical approach (see Hatfield & Rapson 2009 for
review of this work). Several cross-cultural studies
showed that love is indeed classified as an emotion,
among other basic emotions such as joy, anger, sadness,
and fear, independently of the languages (e.g., English,
Italian, Basque, and Indonesia; see Hatfield & Rapson
2009 for review; Shaver et al. 2001; Shaver et al. 1987).
Yet, recently, another debate appeared in
psychology as to whether passionate love should be
classified as a basic or a complex emotion (Ekman &
Cordaro 2011, Russell et al. 2011). Most scientists
accept the idea that all basic emotions share three main
characteristics, as they are all: 1) basic, 2) universal,
and 3) short-lasting human emotions, debates are raging
to define which emotions are basic and which are
complex (Ekman 1992, Ekman & Cordaro 2011, Ekman
1999); whereas complex emotions tend to last longer.
Darwin differentiated complex emotions from basic
emotions, as follows: “Parental love, romantic love,
envy, or jealousy last for much longer periods-months,
years, a lifetime for love and at least hours or days for
envy or jealousy” (Darwin 1872, p. 83). Similarly,
Ekman differentiates love from basic emotion based
on the fact that there is no facial expression for love (a
main criterion of basic emotions) (Sabini & Silver
2005). By demonstrating that love in the brain may be
characterized by a specific network involving brain
areas that mediate complex cognitive functions (rather
than basic emotions only), social neuroscientists
provide further evidence towards love as a complex
emotion rather than a basic emotion only. Based on the
above, one can define passionate love as follows: “a
rewarding emotional state that includes basic emotions
and also complex emotions, goal-directed motivations,
and cognition” (Ortigue et al. 2010).
To measure the cognitive, emotional and
behavioral indicants of passionate love, Hatfield and
Sprecher developed the Passionate Love Scale (PLS;
Hatfield & Sprecher 1986). The PLS has been found to
be a useful measure of passionate love for men and
women of all ages, in a variety of cultures, and to
correlate well with certain well-defined patterns of
neural activation (see Hatfield & Rapson 2009, Ortigue
et al. 2010 for review).
The brain network of passionate love
Central and peripheral electrophysiological
indices of love in the human brain
To our knowledge, the first modern-day neuro-
scientists to study passionate love were Niels Birbaumer
and his Tübingen colleagues (1993), who performed a
series of electroencephalogram (EEG) recordings (from
15 different brain locations on the surface of the scalp)
in healthy participants during love-related imaging tasks
(imagining a time in their past in which they had been
joyously in love [without sexual imagery] and
imagining the same scene [with sexual imagery])
compared to sensory tasks - such as determining which
of two pieces of sandpaper was the smoothest
(Birbaumer et al. 1993). The authors suggested (on the
basis of their EEG assessments) that the frontal and
posterior groupings showed similar dimensions on the
romantic imagery tasks, whereas smaller dimensions
were found in the frontal as compared to the posterior
electrode sites on the four sensory tasks. The authors
then concluded that passionate imagery involves a
significantly higher brain complexity than does sensory
stimulation at all brain sites, but particularly at frontal
regions (Birbaumer et al. 1993).
In another experiment, Birbaumer and his group
compared electrophysiological responses from students
passionately in love (as assessed by the Passionate Love
Scale described earlier) with a matched group of 10
people, who were not emotionally involved with
anyone. In this experiment, participants were asked to
imagine a joyous scene with a beloved partner, a scene
of intense jealousy, and a neutral scene (an empty living
room), while their electric brain activity was recorded
from the midline (Fz, Cz, Pz) and its fractal dimensions
were estimated (using the method described by Graf &
Elbert 1988). No meaningful between group or content
differences resulted from these specific analyses.
Overall, nevertheless, the fractal dimensionality of the
EEG indicated that passionate imagery employed
anatomically more widespread (“less localized”,
(Birbaumer et al. 1993, p. 133) activity and more
complex brain processes than sensory tasks. Frontal
lobe mechanisms, in particular, seemed to add to
imagery-related chaos compared to tactile or visual
stimulation. Images, they note, may be “more than just
pictures in the head” (Birbaumer et al. 1993, p. 134).
A decade later, other experiments are reported in
social neuroscience of love. For instance, in 2008, Bas¸ar
et al. investigated the oscillatory brain dynamics of love
using facial stimuli of a “loved person” in 20 women
(Bas¸ar et al. 2008). Their main results showed that a
specific frequency band generated by the brain (i.e.,
the delta band here) may be evoked by the photo of a
“loved person”, and showed significantly higher
amplitude values in comparison with an “unknown
person”, and also with the picture of the “appreciated
person” (Bas¸ar et al. 2008). More recently, in 2010,
Vico and colleagues also investigated central and
peripheral electrophysiological indices associated with
the perception of loved faces. In Vico et al.’s
experiment, 30 female undergraduate students (ranging
in age between 20 and 27 years), viewed black-and-
white photographs of faces that belonged to one of five
categories: loved ones, famous people (pre-selected by
the participants), unknown people, babies from the
IAPS, and neutral faces from the Ekman and Friesen
system. Subcategories of loved faces included romantic
partner, parents, siblings, second-degree relatives, and
friends. Participants were informed that the purpose of
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Social neuroscience of love
Clinical Neuropsychiatry (2012) 9, 1
the study was to examine physiological responses to
familiar faces (Vico et al. 2010). One of the selection
criteria was that participants were required to have a
current romantic relationship and to reside in close
proximity to five loved ones, including the partner, so
as to be able to take their photograph. Pictures were
presented in two separate blocks, differing in viewing
time (0.5 s vs. 4 s), inter-stimulus interval (1.2 s vs.
18s), and number of face presentations (200 vs. 50).
Figure 1. Skin conductance (top), zygomatic activity (middle), and heart rate (bottom) as a function of face
category (loved, babies, neutral, famous, and unknown; Vico et al. 2010)
Heart rate, skin conductance, electromyography of the
zygomatic muscle, and event-related potentials (ERPs)
were obtained while participants passively viewed the
pictures. Subjective picture ratings of valence, arousal,
and dominance were obtained at the end of the
experiment. Both central and peripheral electro-
physiological measures differentiated faces of loved
ones from all other categories by eliciting higher heart
rate, skin conductance, and zygomatic activity, as well
Time (in seconds)
Skin Conductance Change (in µSiemens)
Change in EMG (in µVolts)Heart Rate Change (in bpm)
Time (in seconds)
Time (in seconds)
LOVED
BABIES
UNKNOWN
FAMOUS
NEUTRAL
LOVED
BABIES
UNKNOWN
FAMOUS
NEUTRAL
LOVED
BABIES
UNKNOWN
FAMOUS
NEUTRAL
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Clinical Neuropsychiatry (2012) 9, 1
Figure 2. Event-related potentials (ERPs) for the Slow (left column) and Fast (right column) Blocks as a function
of Face Category and Electrode Location: Fz (top), Cz (middle), and Pz (bottom); Vico et al. 2010
as larger amplitudes of the late ERP components P3
and LPP - see figure 1; Vico et al. 2010).
In Vico et al.’s experiment, additional differences
were found among subcategories of loved faces. For
instance, faces of romantic partners elicited higher
physiological (skin conductance and zygomatic
activity) and higher subjective (emotional arousal)
responses than parents, siblings, or friends, suggesting
that looking at the image of someone we love evokes
strong positive affect and emotional/cognitive arousal
that go beyond a feeling of familiarity or simple
recognition. Accordingly, the electroencephalogram
(EEG) recordings done at the Fz, Cz, and Pz electrode
sites of the 10-20system showed that faces of love
evoked larger positive responses than the other four
types of faces (figure 2). For instance, the authors noted
that approximately 300 ms after the onset of a face:
A component (named P3)’s amplitude was
affected by Face Categories(F(4, 96)=13.18, p < .001),
being largest when evoked by the faces of loved ones
than by all other face categories (all p-values < .001).
No significant differences were found between babies
and neutral faces, or between famous and unknown
faces. The largest amplitudes of the P3 were found at
Pz and Cz (F(2, 48)=70.49, p < .0001), with both
electrodes sites differing significantly from the Fz
location (p < .001). Similar differences, that we don’t
describe here) were also observed at later stages of
information processing (after 400 ms) as a function of
face categories. In the past two years, Vico and
colleagues performed a series of three other
experiments attempting to tease apart the role of
familiarity, arousal, and valence during the facial
processing of loved ones (Vico et al. 2010, Guerra et
al. 2011). Their results all support the conclusion that
“viewing the faces of familiar loved ones elicits an
intense positive emotional reaction that cannot be
explained either by familiarity or arousal alone
(Guerra et al. 2011).
Although these studies provide interesting results
about the speed of love at the central and peripheral
level, the poor spatial resolution of standard EEG when
recorded from only a few locations on the surface of
the scalp does not allow researcher to know exactly
where love is mediated in the brain.
-100 0 100 200 300 400 500 600 700 800 900
Time (in ms)
-100 0 100 200 300 400 500 600 700 800 900
Time (in ms)
-100 0 100 200 300 400 500 600 700 800 900
Time (in ms)
-100 0 100 200 300 400 500 600 700 800 900
Time (in ms)
-100 0 100 200 300 400 500 600 700 800 900
Time (in ms)
-100 0 100 200 300 400 500 600 700 800 900
Time (in ms)
Amplitude (in µVolts)
LOVED
BABIES
UNKNOWN
FAMOUS
NEUTRALS
LOVED
BABIES
UNKNOWN
FAMOUS
NEUTRALS
LOVED
BABIES
UNKNOWN
FAMOUS
NEUTRALS
LOVED
BABIES
UNKNOWN
FAMOUS
NEUTRALS
LOVED
BABIES
UNKNOWN
FAMOUS
NEUTRALS
LOVED
BABIES
UNKNOWN
FAMOUS
NEUTRALS
-8
-4
0
4
8
12
16
20
Amplitude (in µVolts)
-12
-10
-8
-6
-4
-2
0
2
4
6
8
10
Amplitude (in µVolts)
-8
-4
0
4
8
12
16
20
Amplitude (in µVolts)
-12
-10
-8
-6
-4
-2
0
2
4
6
8
10
Amplitude (in µVolts)
-8
-4
0
4
8
12
16
20
Amplitude (in µVolts)
-12
-10
-8
-6
-4
-2
0
2
4
6
8
10
SLOW TASK Fz
SLOW TASK Cz
SLOW TASK Pz
FAST TASK Fz
FAST TASK Cz
FAST TASK Pz
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Social neuroscience of love
Clinical Neuropsychiatry (2012) 9, 1
Figure 3. Subcortical brain network of passionate love
Figure 4. Cortical brain network of passionate love
Where does love happen in the human brain?
fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imagery)
evidence
Using high-spatial resolution neuroimaging
techniques, such as fMRI, researchers have devoted
increasing attention to neurobiological substrates and
neurological processes of close relationships and love
during the past decade. In brief, fMRI studies of love
present changes in blood flow and metabolism
associated with the presentation of partner-related
stimuli fMRI measures, changes in blood flow and
oxygenation (hemodynamic response) that are produced
in the brain in response to the presentation of a broad
variety of stimuli. These stimuli can theoretically be
visual, auditory, olfactory, or tactile. To date, however,
mostly visual stimuli (i.e., faces, names, pictures, video-
clips) have been used in fMRI studies of love. The first
neuroscientists to use an fMRI approach to attempt to
identify the brain regions associated with passionate
love were Andreas Bartels and Semir Zeki (2000). The
scientists put up posters around London, advertising
for men and women who were “truly, deeply, and madly
in love”. They also recruited participants via the
internet. Seventy young men and women from 11
countries and several ethnic groups responded.
Respondents were asked to write about their feelings
of love and to complete the Passionate Love Scale
(PLS). Seventeen men and women, ranging in age from
21-37, were selected for the study. Participants were
then placed in an fMRI scanner (Bartels & Zeki 2000).
Bartels and Zeki (2000) gave each participant a color
photograph of their beloved to gaze at, alternating the
beloved’s picture with pictures of a trio of casual
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Stephanie Cacioppo et al.
Clinical Neuropsychiatry (2012) 9, 1
friends. They then digitally compared the scans taken
while the participants viewed their beloved’s picture
with those taken while they viewed a friend’s picture,
creating images that represented the brain regions that
became more (or less) active in both conditions. These
images, the researchers argued, revealed for the first
time the brain regions involved when a person
experiences passionate love. Not surprisingly, the
Bartels and Zeki (2000, 2004) research sparked a
cascade of fMRI research. Since 2000, a growing body
of fMRI studies of passionate love has been performed
in social neuroscience. To provide readers with a
synthetized view of the specific brain network of love
found from these studies, we recently performed a
multilevel kernel density analysis (Cacioppo et al.
2012, Ortigue et al. 2010). Results are summarized
here below.
Subcortical brain network of passionate love
Overall, fMRI studies on passionate love show that
passion sparked increased activity in the subcortical
brain areas that are associated with euphoria, reward,
and motivation (figure 3).
Notably, subcortical activity is reported in the
ventral tegmental area, caudate nucleus, and the
putamen, all bilaterally (figure 3). The activation of
these subcortical dopaminergic-rich areas during
experiences of passionate love is in line with psy-
chological studies defining love as a rewarding, positi-
ve and motivating experience. Most of these regions
were those that are active when people are under the
influence of euphoria-inducing drugs such as opiates
or cocaine. Apparently, both passionate love and those
drugs activate a “blissed-out” circuit in the brain.
Blink (2007) observes:
“You see someone, you click, and you’re euphoric.
And in response, your ventral tegmental area uses
chemical messengers such as dopamine, serotonin,
and oxytocin to send signals racing to a part of the
brain called the nucleus accumbens with the good
news, telling it to start craving. [Certain regions]
are deactivated—areas as within the amygdala,
associated with fear (p. 3; cited in Hatfield &
Rapson 2009)”.
Activity was also noted in other parts of the brain,
notably in brain areas mediating emotion, somato-
sensorial integration, and reward processes (e.g., insula
and anterior cingulate cortex). Interestingly, insula and
the anterior cingulate cortex have also been shown to
become active when people view sexually arousing
material. This makes sense since passionate love and
arousal are generally assumed to be tightly linked
constructs.
The cortical brain network of passionate love
Interestingly, research shows that love does not
only activate subcortical brain areas. fMRI studies on
love also reveal brain activations in higher-order
cortical brain areas (i.e., occipitotemporal/fusiform
region, angular gyrus, dorsolateral middle frontal gyrus,
superior temporal gyrus, occipital cortex, and precentral
gyrus; figure 4). These cortical activations suggest a
role of brain areas involved in social cognition,
attention, memory, mental associations, and self-
representation.
Together, these fMRI findings suggest that
passionate love recruits not only areas mediating basic
emotions, reward or motivation, but also recruits brain
regions involved in complex cognitive processing,
such as social cognition, body image, self
representation and attention. Among these cognitive
brain areas, one can cite the angular gyrus, a brain
region involved in integration of self-related abstract
representations (Arzy et al. 2006, Blanke et al. 2002),
which showed a positive correlation between BOLD
responses in these brain areas and the measures of
passionate love (as measured by the PLS). On the other
hand, the absence of correlation between brain
activation in these brain areas and the length of being
in love underlines that the angular gyrus does not seem
to be directly ‘‘love time dependent”. This is coherent
with a previous study that assessed this question (Aron
et al. 2005) and showed changes in several regions as
the relationship changes, but not in the angular gyrus
and the fusiform regions. Instead, activity related to
the length of the relationship was found in the right
insula, the right cingulate cortex, and the right
posterior cingulated/retrospenial cortex (Aron et al.
2005). In a recent fMRI study investigating the neural
correlates of long-term intense passionate love
performed by Acevedo, Aron and colleagues with 10
women and seven men married an average of 21.4
years, effects specific to the intensely loved, long-term
partner were found in: (i) areas of the dopamine-rich
reward and basal ganglia system, such as the ventral
tegmental area (VTA), dorsal striatum, insula,
consistent with results from other passionate love
studies; and (ii) several regions implicated in maternal
attachment, such as the globus pallidus (GP),
substantia nigra, Raphe nucleus, thalamus, anterior
cingulate and posterior cingulate (Acevedo et al.
2011).
Furthermore, the authors report:
Correlations of neural activity in regions of
interest with widely used questionnaires showed:
(i) VTA and caudate responses correlated with
romantic love scores and inclusion of other in the
self; (ii) GP responses correlated with friendship-
based love scores; (iii) hypothalamus and posterior
hippocampus responses correlated with sexual
frequency; and (iv) caudate, septum/fornix,
posterior cingulate and posterior hippocampus
responses correlated with obsession”.
Together all the results reported above emphasize
the fact that passionate love is characterized by a
subcortical AND a cortical brain network, in which each
brain region might have a specific function. Further
studies need to be done to better understand what these
functions are exactly. The better is our understanding
of love, the greater is our respect for the significance
and potency of its role in mental and physical health
(Ortigue et al. 2010).
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Social neuroscience of love
Clinical Neuropsychiatry (2012) 9, 1
The different types of love in the human brain
In order to better understand the specificity of the
neural bases of passionate love, it is important to
compare the above fMRI results with fMRI
neuroimaging results from other types of love, such as
companionate love (i.e., friendship love); maternal love
(i.e., a tender intimacy and selflessness of a mother’s
love for her child/children) and the so-called
unconditional love (e.g., love for people with
intellectual disabilities; see figure 5).
Companionate love
In comparison with passionate love, companionate
love is defined as being less intense (Hatfield & Rapson
1996). Companionate love is comprised of feelings of
calm, social comfort, emotional union, and the security
felt in the presence of a long-term mate. It sparks
affiliative behaviors, the maintenance of close
proximity, separation anxiety when closeness
disappears, and a willingness to participate in shared
parental chores. Animal studies suggest that this brain
system is primarily associated with oxytocin and
vasopressin in the nucleus accumbens and ventral
pallidum. Little is known, however, about companionate
love in the human brain, as fMRI studies on love often
use this condition as a control condition to better
understand passionate love. This means that while the
fMRI results regarding the comparison passionate love
minus companionate love are often reported, the reverse
comparison (companionate love minus passionate love)
is less frequent. Further studies need to be done to better
understand the brain network of companionate love.
Unconditional love
To our knowledge, only one fMRI has been
performed on unconditional love (Beauregard et al.
2009). In their experiment, the authors asked 17
participants (8 men and 9 women) to perform two
different tasks while they were in the fMRI scanner:
one task was to passively view pictures depicting
individuals (children and adults) with intellectual
disabilities; another task was to perform what the
authors called an “unconditional love viewing” and self-
generate feelings of unconditional love toward the same
pictures. In comparison with the “passive” condition,
Beauregard et al.’s results showed that the
“unconditional love” condition revealed significant
brain activation in the love-related reward and
dopaminergic system (i.e., insula, globus pallidus,
caudate nucleus, and ventral tegmental area), as well
as the periaqueductal (central) gray matter (PAG). As
in previous fMRI studies of love, additional brain
activations were also observed in anterior cingulate
cortex, superior parietal lobule, and inferior occipital
gyrus. According to this specific experimental study,
these results indicate that unconditional love for persons
with intellectual disabilities, like maternal love and
passionate love, involves the subcortical and cortical
brain regions involved in reward, emotion and social
Passionate love
Other types of love
Body image Sees partner’s body as better than own
Self-representation Sees partner as completing self
Attention Focuses on partner; ignores others
Social cognition Understands partner’s intentions
1. Dorsolateral middle frontal gyrus
2. Insula
3. Superior temporal gyrus
4. Angular gyrus
5. Occipital cortex
6. Occipitotemporal cortex
7. Ventral temporal regions
Interior passion regions not visible:
Caudate nucleus, thalamus,
anterior cingulate, posterior
hippocampus, precentral gyrus
Active regions
Heightened cognitive functions
Figure 5. Passionate love vs. other types of love in the human brain (view of the left hemisphere; Scientific
American Mind)
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Stephanie Cacioppo et al.
Clinical Neuropsychiatry (2012) 9, 1
cognition (Ortigue et al. 2010). Although the present
experiment uses an interesting experimental design, its
specificity and subjective condition requiring to self-
generate unconditional love might limit the
generalization of the results. Further studies thus need
to test other aspects of unconditional love in order to
better grasp this general construct and its neural bases.
Maternal love
In 2004, Bartels and Zeki conducted an fMRI study
on maternal love and compared the results with those
they obtained previously on passionate love (Bartels &
Zeki 2004). In this fMRI experiment, the authors asked
20 mothers to passively view photographs of their own
child, photographs of another child of the same age with
whom they were acquainted, and photographs of
another person they were acquainted with. Results
showed activity in the insula, and in the anterior
cingulate cortex, i.e., brain areas overlapping with
activity observed with passionate love. As for passionate
love, results for maternal love revealed brain activation
in subcortical dopaminergic-rich areas (more precisely,
here activations were observed in caudate nucleus,
putamen, subthalamic nucleus, periaqueductal gray,
substantia nigra, and lateral thalamus), as well as
activation in cortical brain regions mediating higher-
order cognitive or emotive processing, such as the
lateral fusiform gyrus, lateral orbitofrontal cortex, and
in the lateral prefrontal cortex). A specific activation
of PAG was observed in maternal (but not passionate)
Figure 6. Rendered group activation maps of brain regions more active during processing of mother and father
faces (Arsalidou et al. 2010)
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Social neuroscience of love
Clinical Neuropsychiatry (2012) 9, 1
love only. The role of PAG in maternal love was
reinforced in another fMRI study that investigated the
neural bases of maternal love in 13 mothers while they
were viewing “video clips of their own infant and four
unknown infants in two different situations (situation
#1: playing situation; and situation #2: separation
situation)” (Noriuchi et al. 2008). When the mothers
viewed their own infant vs. other infants, results showed
significant activation in the PAG. This suggests that PAG
might be specific to maternal love (in comparison with
passionate love), which makes sense since PAG contains
a high density of vasopressin receptors that are
important in maternal bonding. On the other hand, these
findings also suggest that PAG is not specifically
activated during maternal love only. Rather, PAG is
activated for both maternal love and unconditional love,
which makes sense given that mothers often feel
unconditional love for their child/children. Also, as in
previous studies, additional brain activations were also
found for maternal love in emotion-related brain areas
(i.e., right anterior insula, putamen, thalamus, hypo-
thalamus, and the orbitofrontal cortices), and higher-
order cognitive or emotive processing (i.e., inferior
frontal gyrus, dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, middle
frontal gyrus, middle temporal gyrus, superior temporal
gyrus, postcentral gyrus, and the inferior parietal
lobule).
Reciprocally, fMRI studies investigating the
neural correlates of face recognition using paradigms
where participants are being asked to recognize familiar
faces (e.g., one’s own face, partner’s and parents’ faces)
vs. famous faces show similar brain activations as well
as activations in brain areas known to mediate
semantic, salient, and social information known about
a person. For instance, in a recent fMRI study
performed in 10 participants, Taylor and colleagues
reported that:
All familiar faces (compared with baseline)
activate the fusiform gyrus [a key area in face processing
that can be also activated for color, shape]; own faces
also activate occipital regions and the precuneus;
partner faces activate similar areas, but in addition,
the parahippocampal gyrus, middle superior temporal
gyri and middle frontal gyrus. Compared with
unfamiliar faces, only personally familiar faces
activated the cingulate gyrus and the extent of activation
varied with face category. Partner faces also activated
the insula, amygdala and thalamus. Regions of interest
analyses and laterality indices showed anatomical
distinctions of processing the personally familiar faces
within the fusiform and cingulate gyri. Famous faces
were right lateralized whereas personally familiar
faces, particularly partner and own faces, elicited
bilateral activations. Regression analyses show
experiential predictors modulated with neural activity
related to own and partner faces. Thus, personally
familiar faces activated the core visual areas and
extended frontal regions, related to semantic and person
knowledge and the extent and areas of activation varied
with face type” (Taylor et al. 2009).
In a subsequent fMRI study (Arsalidou et al. 2010),
Taylor and colleagues examined brain activity in 10
adult participants (4 men, mean age 35.4 ± 7.7 years;
eight right handed) in response to faces of their mothers
and fathers compared to faces of celebrities and
strangers. The authors report their results as follows:
“Whole-brain contrasts were also performed
among the different faces. The right superior temporal
gyrus was more active to mothers’ faces than fathers’
faces. Mothers’ faces also elicited more activity
compared to unknown females in left supramarginal
gyrus, left insula, and left middle frontal gyrus, right
middle temporal gyrus and right superior and inferior
frontal gyri. Bilateral middle temporal gyri, right
inferior frontal gyrus and left cingulate gyrus activity
was observed for mother faces compared to celebrity
females.
Fathers’ faces elicited more activity in the left
caudate than celebrity males (Arsalidou et al. 2010; p.
48).
Overall, these findings show a differential
processing for mother’s faces and father’s faces in core
and extended brain regions associated with face and
familiarity processing for mother’s face processing
(compared to father’s, celebrity’s or stranger’s faces),
and in the caudate nucleus for father’s faces (when
compared to celebrity males, whereas no significant
difference in activity was found between father’s faces
and faces of unknown males; figure 6). The activation
of the dorsal striatum (caudate nucleus) here is in line
with previous studies showing the key role of this
subcortical dopaminergic-rich area love as well as in
the emotional aspects of faces. The restricted activation
of this brain area in the processing of fathers’ faces
might be due to a limitation in the method and threshold.
At a lower threshold, the authors report the following
results:
Activity in the caudate was present for the
comparisons fathers’ versus unknown male faces (p =
0.07), mothers’ versus celebrity female faces (p = 0.08),
and mothers’ versus unknown female faces (p = 0.03).
It may be the case that while viewing mothers’ faces
activity in the caudate is obscured by activity in other
cortical areas and thus only appears at a more lenient
threshold. Together with the distinct caudate activity
associated with fathers’ faces, these findings support
the idea that this region is associated with a global
sensation of love or reward which mothers’ and fathers’
faces engender” (Arsalidou et al. 2010).
Overall, the current data complement the standard
models of face proposing that suggest that faces are
processed by a specific distributed network of brain
areas, that may vary as a function of the emotional
valence, or salience of the person. The present studies
shed light on the specific brain circuits that are involved
in response to stimuli that evoke love (in contrast to
baseline or other affective states, such as desire;
Cacioppo et al. 2012). Although passionate love and
other types of love may be experienced in concert, they
are different emotional and cognitive states that are
characterized by specific and different networks in the
human brain (figure 5; Ortigue et al. 2010).
12
Stephanie Cacioppo et al.
Clinical Neuropsychiatry (2012) 9, 1
Conclusion
Social neuroscience of love is a growing field of
research, which only recently has become the topic of
intensive and rigorous scientific empirical investi-
gations. By identifying the specific cortico-subcortical
neural network as well as the central and peripheral
electrophysiological indices of love, we hope to provide
an interdisciplinary approach to better understand the
complexity of love and its disorders. Although
combining knowledge from neuroimaging (fMRI and
EEG) studies with standard approach in relationship
science still doesn’t solve the hard problem of love
regarding its nature and origin, an integrative approach
combining neuroimaging techniques with other
disciplines such as social psychology, animal studies,
and genetics has the potential to answer age-old questions
as to the function of love, which can have useful
applications in mental health and couple therapies.
Acknowledgments
The authors thank James W. Lewis, Chris Frum,
and Elsa Juan. This work was supported by the Swiss
National Science Foundation (Grant #PP00_1_128599/
1 to SC), the University Funds Maurice Chalumeau of
the University of Geneva in Switzerland (to SC and
FBD), and the Mind Science Foundation (Grant #
TSA2010-2 to SC, & FBD).
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Throughout history, artists, poets, and writers have been interested in the nature of passionate love, sexual desire, and sexual behavior. In the 1960s, social psychologists and sexologists began the systematic investigation of these complex phenomena (see Berscheid & Hatfield, 1969; Hatfield & Rapson, 1993; Hatfield & Rapson, 2005, for a review of this research). Yet, only recently have neuroscientists and biochemists begun to explore these complex phenomena. In this entry, we will review what these distinguished theorists and researchers have learned about these processes.
Article
Paul Ekman's view of the emotions is, we argue, pervasive in psychology and is explicitly shaped to be compatible with evolutionary thinking. Yet, strangely, jealousy and parental love, two emotions that figure prominently in evolutionary psychology, are absent from Ekman's list of the emotions. In this paper we examine why Ekman believes this exclusion is necessary, and what this implies about the limits of his conception of emotion. We propose an alternative way of thinking about emotion that does not exclude jealousy and parental love.