Keeping love alive

Keeping love alive
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First Published: Sat, Feb 23 2008. 12 12 AM IST

(Imaging by Devajit Bora / Mint)
(Imaging by Devajit Bora / Mint)
Updated: Sat, Feb 23 2008. 12 12 AM IST
Ann Tucker is pushing a shopping cart through a supermarket in Plainview, New York, when she turns to kiss her husband. The supermarket kiss is a regular ritual for the Tuckers. So are the restaurant kiss and the traffic-light kiss. “I guess we do kiss a lot,” says Ann, a 39-year-old mathematician at a money management firm.
Ann Tucker is living happily ever after, and scientists are curious why. She belongs to a small class of men and women who say they live in the thrall of early love despite years of marriage, busy jobs and other daily demands that normally chip away at passion.
(Imaging by Devajit Bora / Mint)
Most couples find that the dizzying, almost-narcotic feeling of early love gives way to a calmer bond. Now, researchers are using laboratory science to investigate Tucker and others who live fairy tale romances. The studies could help reveal the workings of lifelong passion and perhaps one day lead to a restorative.
Philosophers and writers have long examined passion and love. The 19th century introduced psychologists and sociologists to the discussion. In recent years, neuroscientists have joined in. While love is historically tied to the heart, they are looking for answers in the brain, using magnetic imaging and other modern tools.
Psychologists studying relationships confirm the steady decline of romantic love. Each year, according to surveys, the average couple loses a little spark. One sociological study of marital satisfaction at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln and Penn State University kept track of more than 2,000 married people over 17 years. Average marital happiness fell sharply in the first 10 years, then entered a slow decline. Around 15 years ago, Arthur Aron, a social psychologist at Stony Brook University, became curious about couples outside the norm. His own work turned up the usual pattern of declining passion. But he was drawn to people who claimed they had been madly in love for years. “I didn’t know what to make of that,” Aron says. “Was it random error? Were they self-deceiving or deceiving others? Because it is not supposed to happen.”
In late August, Ann Tucker visited New York University’s Center for Brain Imaging. There, a 4-tonne device called a functional magnetic resonance imaging scanner would analyse her brain while she looked at a photo of her husband. The machines record changes in oxygen levels of blood feeding the brain. Because the brain is quick to supply fresh blood to working areas, researchers use them to see where the brain is more active during such mental tasks as recognizing words or feeling love.
Tucker drove in with Bianca Acevedo, one of Aron’s graduate students. Acevedo’s doctoral dissertation studies brain images to compare new love with long-term love.
Only a handful of studies have used magnetic imaging to study love, in part because scientists debate whether it is a good measure of hard-to-define mental states. The first widely cited study, published in 2000, scanned men and women who claimed to be madly in love. It found evidence that love could be traced in the brain.
Over the next few years, Aron collaborated on a study that would push further. Published in 2005, it helped establish the link between romantic love and the so-called reward seeking circuitry, which is thought to be linked to such deep motivations as thirst or drug addiction. Aron joined Helen Fisher, an anthropologist at Rutgers University in New Jersey, and Lucy L. Brown, a neuroscientist at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. They examined blood flow in the brains of 17 volunteers, mostly college students, who were scanned as they looked at photos of their lovers.
They found robust activity in a brain region called the ventral tegmental area, which is rich in dopamine, a brain chemical connected to feelings of pleasure. Another of Aron’s students repeated the results in China, bolstering the case that romantic love is a biological drive not bound by culture.
None of the published studies focused on people in long-term relationships. Acevedo’s research plan—hatched with Aron, Fisher and Brown—was to repeat the experiment with people who had been in love for more than a decade to see how they compare. The first hurdle was finding such couples.
Ann Tucker is a meticulous woman with black hair in a pixie cut who moved to the US from Korea when she was five. She is shy and sometimes slips into statistical jargon when talking with her husband. When the two PhDs plan a party, they weigh a “Type I error” against a “Type II error”, too little food or too much.
Her husband, Alan, 64, is a lanky, applied math professor at Stony Brook who speaks with a youthful enthusiasm. They met sitting across a horse-shoe shaped table at a math conference in the Adirondack Mountains. “I knew immediately we would get married,” Ann says. They got their marriage licence less than a year later, on Valentine’s Day.
They share a two-storey home in Cold Spring Harbor, New York. One afternoon last fall, their son Teddy, now 10, works his PlayStation, and their toddler James plays with a toy train. Alan recounts their courtship. “After the second date, it would be three steps, stop and kiss,” he says. After nearly 11 years of marriage, they still see each other as romantic ideals.
Researchers also found Michelle Jordan, a 59-year-old communications consultant, and her husband, Billy Owens. On a cross-country flight, she sat next to Owens, a well-built man from Gadsden, Alabama. “I had this immediate reaction of, ‘What a nice-looking guy’,” she says. They chatted throughout the flight, her dry wit mixing with his easy charm.
Jordan and Owens lived in different cities, so it took months of long-distance dating before their first kiss. “You are always cautious about setting yourself up for disappointment again,” recalls Jordan, who was 42 at the time. They married three years later and now live in Newport Beach, California. Even now, Jordan still seeks her husband’s hand when they are together. “It comes very naturally,” she says.
Acevedo was confident that such long-term love was a real, if somewhat rare, phenomenon. Brain activity in the ventral tegmental area would support the idea. Brown, the neuroscientist on the project, was sceptical. Her theory: Ann Tucker and Jordan weren’t experiencing the same brain impulses as new lovers, and brain scans would show that.
Tucker recalls taking off a gold bracelet, a gift from her husband, before sliding into the MRI machine. Images of her husband are reflected on a mirror above her. She recalls feeling “a warm contentment”.
Until recently, most neuroscientists considered love an ill-defined topic best avoided. But a growing body of work showed that our attachments have a neurological underpinning. In 1996, a privately funded conference in Stockholm took the title “Is there a neurobiology of love?” Among the organizers was Sue Carter, an expert on the prairie vole brain.
The prairie vole is a North American rodent that mostly mates for life, making it a useful proxy for studying human attachment. Carter, a neuroendocrinologist now at the University of Illinois in Chicago, helped establish a link between vole monogamy and oxytocin—the so-called love hormone that helps bind mates, as well as mothers and their offspring.
Days after Tucker’s brain scan, Brown, the neuroscientist, sat in her book-lined office looking at the results. “Wow, just wow,” she recalls thinking. Tucker’s brain reacted to her husband’s photo with a frenzy of activity in the ventral tegmental area. “I was shocked,” Brown says.
The brain scan confirmed what Tucker said all along. But when she learned the result, she too was a bit surprised. “It’s not something I expected after 11 years,” she says. “But having it, it’s like a gift.”
In the following months, Brown analysed data from four more people, including Jordan, who also showed brain activity associated with new love. The study is ongoing, and more volunteers are being sought.
There is much work ahead before scientists can map the human attachment system and learn what factors affect it. A love drug is an even more distant dream.
“People in the field, we have kidded about it, but nobody thinks it is—in the short term— realistic,” says Aron.
Lifelong love
Animals found to be socially monogamous
Pygmy Marmosets
Two pygmy marmosets from the upper Amazon region of Ecuador. The soft-furred creatures are the smallest living monkeys.
/Content/Videos/2008-02-23/SS230208_COVER.flv
Prairie Voles
Gerbil-sized rodents native to the Great Plains that generally court for 6-24 hours, then stay paired for life.
Grey Foxes
Mated pair of grey foxes (‘Urocyon cinereoargenteus’), also known as tree foxes, sleeping in a tree in north-eastern Florida.
Grey-headed Albatross
They return to breeding grounds to mate with the same partners.
(Write to wsj@livemint.com)
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First Published: Sat, Feb 23 2008. 12 12 AM IST