What happens in our brain when we fall in love


To fall in love is first of all to experience strong emotions, suddenly and in a perfectly uncontrollable way. But what happens in the brain?

An irrational phenomenon par excellence, the sentiment of love seems both universal and elusive. The Conversation France asked Yves Agid, Professor of Neurology, a neuroscience researcher, scientific director and founder of the Institute of the Brain and Spinal Cord (ICM) to explain what we know about Brain in love. And especially those internal deflagrations which escape us completely when we are “touched in the heart” (or in the brain, in this case), which science is trying to identify and qualify. Editor’s note: This text is based on the transcript of a video interview of Yves Agid carried out by the ICM.

A sudden phenomenon

To fall in love is first of all to experience strong emotions, suddenly and in a perfectly uncontrollable way . Strong acceleration of the heart, pallor, hot blow … are so many physical symptoms that manifest this influx of emotions that provokes the presence of the other, of the loving object. It is a sudden and transitory phenomenon. At that point, if you make a stop on images: what happens in the brain?

Let’s say you see someone for whom you have a sudden empathy, which you like very much. This information is conveyed in your brain through perceptions, whether visual, audible, tactile, etc. These perceptions are treated in regions of the brain that more specifically manage emotions. In the brain, there are specific circuits: some are in charge of motricity, others are intellect … and there are also the circuits assigned to the emotions.

What is interesting about the feeling of love is that it happens suddenly. You do not say “this man or woman has a beautiful blazer, his face pleases me …” You do not decide anything, rational analysis has nothing to do with your reaction. This is an automatic behavior. For neuroscientists, it is necessary to understand precisely which areas of the brain are activated, in humans, when they fall in love.

Lovers … like pigeons?

To simplify, the brain, this mass of gelatin (which weighs less than three pounds) is composed of an enormous peripheral layer: it is the cerebral cortex, which manages our non-automatic behaviors. But there are also, and above all, automatic behaviors such as walking, cycling, driving a car, all these things we do without thinking about them, which are essentially managed by very small structures at the base of the brain, The central gray nuclei (which represent only 1 / 50ᵉ of the cerebral mass).

Pigeons are almost devoid of cerebral cortex.

What is amazing is that the feeling of love seems to be justly managed by so small, so old, cerebral structures. In an intuitive way one could say that love is so complex and so subtle that it essentially solicits the cerebral cortex – a more recent territory that controls man’s most subtle mental activities, namely non-automatic behaviors, Like consciousness. In fact, not at all. Falling in love is more a matter of subconsciousness , that is, of the cerebral faculty which allows us to act, to think and to feel emotions in a non-conscious and therefore automatic way.

We have all already observed loving pigeons who are looting. Like us ! However, the pigeons have practically no cortex, but very developed central gray nuclei. Everything happens in these animals as well as in human beings: one “falls” in a brutal and unexpected way, automatically, subconsciously … probably with the contribution of the most primitive cerebral structures of the brain.

In a certain way, we behave like animals … In humans, however, we must qualify: we can oppose love-passion, which declares itself without warning, and the love that takes hold With time, when the partners got to know each other. But anyway, you do not decide to fall in love.

In all cases, one must remain cautious and not draw hasty conclusions: one has on one side love, which is translated by the most complex behaviors that are, from an emotional point of view, and The other is the function of the brain, which is extremely complicated too. Establishing relationships between the two is not easy, and there is still much to discover.

Proof by MRI

Science provides several experimental proofs of the role of the central gray nuclei in the sentiment of love: Andreas Bartels and Semir Zeki in London have thus received a number of couples deeply in love. They asked one of the two partners to go into an MRI. Let us suppose that it is a man: one observes then what happens in his brain when one shows him a series of photos of women: for the most part, they are unknowns, and from time to time there is a cliché of his Beloved. What lights up in his brain, at the sight of the one he loves, are the central gray nuclei!

These central gray nuclei, linked to the corresponding regions in the cerebral cortex, constitute a kind of road “node” that play a preferential role in automatic actions, while the cortex plays an essential role in the consciousness of non-automatic actions.

Thus, before the intellectualization, and sometimes the regrets associated with the feeling of love or passion, there is the brutal and uncontrollable arrival of love, in the form of strong emotions. In the first case, it is the cerebral cortex which contributes essentially, in the second, it is the central gray nuclei. In any case, it is the brain that triggers love …

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