Unit 5: Love and Metamorphosis

Article: When Cupid’s Arrow Strikes

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Photo by GabrielFerraz on Pixabay, \cczero

Before You Read

Discuss the following questions with a partner.

  1. Have you ever fallen in love?
  2. How did it feel?
  3. Have you ever been in a one-sided love?
  4. How did that feel?
  5. If you look a picture of someone you love romantically, how do you feel when you see the picture?
  6. Skim the next reading. What do you think is the author’s purpose of the text: to inform, entertain, or to persuade? How will that affect the way you take notes on the reading?

 

Vocabulary in Context

This reading has a lot of interesting vocabulary, especially related to love and biology. The sentences below have some vocabulary of interest that will help you understand the reading better. You should try to guess the vocabulary using the context.

  1. Few feelings are as intense and overwhelming as love. You feel elated and stimulated one minute. The next, you are anxious or yearning.
  2. So Aron dove into the topic himself. He continued his research at the University of Toronto, where he wrote a long report on the subject.
  3. For one study, each of their love-struck recruits started by filling out a questionnaire designed to gauge the intensity of his or her feelings.
  4. After viewing each image of a buddy or beau, the volunteers were asked to count backward from a large number.
  5. Two in particular light up among people still in the early sizzle of love.
  6. Once you have fallen in love, a surge of dopamine helps make you feel exhilarated.
  7. Fortunately, this frenzied phase of love doesn’t last. Aron says that while typical at first, this obsessive phase eventually ends.
  8. During the early stages of love, multiple hormones course through the body.

When Cupid’s Arrow Strikes

Adapted from an article by Susan Gaidos for Science News for Students–permission for reuse granted to author only

Your heart is racing, your palms are sweaty and your appetite is gone. You couldn’t sleep if you tried. Focusing on schoolwork is nearly impossible. You realize you must be sick — or, even more serious, in love!

Few feelings are as intense and overwhelming as love. You feel elated and stimulated one minute. The next, you are anxious or yearning. Millions of songs have focused on the ups and downs that come with love. Poets and writers have written for thousands of years trying to capture the experience.

When Arthur Aron found himself in love, he did something different. He set out to investigate what happens to the brain.

It was the late 1960s and Aron was a student at the University of California, Berkeley. Working to complete a master’s degree in psychology, he looked forward someday to having a career as a college professor. His studies focused on the way people work and relate in small groups. Then Cupid intervened.

Aron fell for Elaine, a fellow student. When he thought of her, he experienced all the symptoms of new love: euphoria, sleeplessness, loss of appetite and an overwhelming desire to be near her. Everything was intense, exciting and sometimes confusing.

To find out why he was feeling this way, Aron began searching for published data about what goes on in the minds of people in love. But he found almost nothing. At that time, few researchers had begun probing the biology of romantic love.

So Aron dove into the topic himself. He continued his research at the University of Toronto, where he wrote a long report on the subject. (He also married his sweetheart, Elaine.) Today, he teaches psychology at the Stony Brook University in New York. When he’s not teaching, he continues to study what happens when we fall in love.

Recently, he teamed up with other scientists to peer into the minds of people crazy with love. Their goal was to map love’s impact on the brain. The studies reveal that when shown a sweetie’s picture, a person’s brain will fire up in the same areas that respond when anticipating a favorite food or other pleasure.

“What we’re seeing is the same response, more or less, that people show when they expect to win a lot of money or expect to have something very good happen to them,” Aron says.

His research, along with studies led by other experts, is helping explain the science of love when Cupid strikes. All that mystery, all those songs and all those complex behaviors can be explained — at least in part — by the surge of just a few chemicals in our brain.

Love — the drug

Most people think of love as an emotion. But it’s not, Aron says. Love actually is more of a drive — like hunger or addiction.

“Love isn’t a unique emotion, but it leads to all kinds of emotions if you can’t get what you want,” Aron says.

To learn more, Aron teamed up with neuroscientist Lucy Brown, who teaches at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, and anthropologist Helen Fisher of Rutgers University in nearby New Brunswick, N.J. Together, they are studying the brains of people newly in love.

For one study, each of their love-struck recruits started by filling out a questionnaire designed to gauge the intensity of his or her feelings. The scientists then rolled each volunteer into a functional magnetic resonance imaging — or fMRI — scanner to see which brain regions are most affected by love. The fMRI detects changes in the flow of blood in various parts of the brain. Increased flow generally identifies areas that have become more active.

While in the scanner, subjects viewed a sweetheart’s photo. At the same time, scientists asked them to recall their most romantic memories. Each recruit also looked at photos of friends or other people they knew. While the volunteers viewed all of these snapshots, the researchers asked them to remember something about the subject of each.

After viewing each image of a buddy or beau, the volunteers were asked to count backward from a large number. This helped keep separate the different emotional responses they had after viewing each photograph. Bringing the volunteers down from any romantic high ensured there wasn’t any spillover when they went on to view pictures of ordinary friends. Throughout all of this, the fMRI machine kept logging activity levels throughout each person’s brain.

“It’s hard to quickly cut off those highly romantic feelings, and go from being swept away by romance” to no feeling or being objective, Brown says. Still, that was the goal here. And Brown says the brain scans showed that when people look at pictures of their sweeties, several brain areas turn on.

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“In the brain, dopamine plays an important role in the regulation of reward and movement. As part of the reward pathway, dopamine is manufactured in nerve cell bodies located within the ventral tegmental area (VTA) and is released in the nucleus accumbens and the prefrontal cortex.” -Wikipedia. Image from the National Institutes of Health, 2006, \ccpd

Two in particular light up among people still in the early sizzle of love. One is called the ventral tegmental area. Located deep at the back of the brain, in the brainstem, this group of neurons controls feelings of motivation and reward. The second center of activity is the caudate nucleus. This small area is located near the front of the head, toward the center of the brain.

The caudate nucleusis associated with the passion of love: It “can make your hand or voice tremble when you’re near your sweetheart, and make you think of nothing else but them,” Brown explains.

During the brain scanning, both brain areas lit up whenever the recruits saw a heartthrob’s image. But not at other times.

Both the ventral tegmental area and caudate nucleus are involved in very basic functions, such as eating, drinking and swallowing, Brown says. These are things people do without thinking.

Indeed, she notes, “Much of the activity that goes on in those areas is done at the unconscious level. That may be one of the reasons that the feelings associated with early love are so hard to control.”

The ventral tegmental area and the caudate nucleus both serve another important function. They are part of the brain’s reward system. Each is packed with cells that produce or receive a brain chemical called dopamine. Known as a feel-good chemical, dopamine plays many roles. One of them: contributing to feelings of pleasure and reward. When you eye your favorite food or win a big prize, your brain’s dopamine levels soar.

Dopamine serves as a signaling hormone, chatting with other nerve cells. It also helps you to focus intensely on what you really want. And it pushes and energizes you to take action and reach your goals. Those goals can include pursuing a romantic interest. Once you have fallen in love, a surge of dopamine helps make you feel exhilarated.

Is it stress — or love?

Other chemicals in your body also work overtime when falling in love. Among them are chemicals that can activate a stress response, such as adrenaline. In high-stress situations, this hormone, also known as epinephrine, increases heart rate and supplies more oxygen to the muscles. That readies the body to take action. It can also make your palms sweat when the object of your affection approaches.

Of course, there’s a downside to all of this stimulation. Any extra dopamine can also increase heart rate, as well as cause sleeplessness and loss of appetite. It also may trigger non-stop thoughts of your sweetie. It may encourage you to spend endless hours talking or texting with your new beau. Your friends may even tell you that you have become obsessed.

Fortunately, this frenzied phase of love doesn’t last. Aron says that while typical at first, this obsessive phase eventually ends. The passion usually lasts for anywhere from a few months to perhaps a year or two. Afterward, your dopamine levels return to normal. You may experience fewer adrenaline rushes, too.

Note, that doesn’t mean the love is gone. Not at all. During the early stages of love, multiple hormones course through the body. As the exciting sizzle fades, another chemical comes onto the scene, Aron says. All those moments of kissing, touching and laughing together can create another, more stable kind of bond, he says. It is fueled by another body chemical with a strange-sounding name: oxytocin.

Hugs and hormones

Paul Zak of Claremont Graduate University in California is also known as Dr. Love. He works in a field of science called neuroeconomics. His research looks at the chemistry of the brain to figure out how people make decisions.

People make thousands of decisions every day, including decisions on whom to trust. As a chemical, oxytocin plays a key role in affecting such decisions. Produced in the brain, oxytocin affects cells in other parts of the brain, as well as elsewhere throughout the body. In the brain, oxytocin also works as a messenger. It delivers information from one nerve cell to its neighbor.

Oxytocin’s most celebrated role comes into play during and immediately after childbirth. It stimulates contractions during labor. It also promotes milk production in nursing mothers. And it helps mothers develop a sense of extraordinary closeness to their babies. It is no wonder oxytocin often is called the love hormone.

Oxytocin is a hormone released during pleasurable contact and intimate gestures such as hugging or holding hands. Researchers think that the bonding hormone works its magic in people by helping to make love last. This chemical strengthens social bonds in other mammals too.

Beyond just mothers and their babies, oxytocin also helps all of us feel connected with others. It may explain the love you feel toward family members and friends. It may even explain your affection for a pet. Studies show that mammals of all types release oxytocin, an indication that cat or dog may really love you back.

This hormone even encourages bonding between people in love. Studies show that certain forms of touch — such as hand-holding and kissing — can make oxytocin levels soar. One of the best ways to boost oxytocin: Hug someone.

Several years ago, Zak stopped shaking hands with people and started hugging them. He now hugs everyone: his lab assistants, grocer, barber and even strangers who approach him. This tendency to hug others — and boost their oxytocin levels — helped earn him that nickname of Dr. Love.

Zak says the hugs also seem to boost the trust that others have in him. “All of a sudden, I started having much better connections with complete strangers,” he says. “It has a really powerful effect.”

 

Comprehension Questions

Answer the following questions according to the information in the article.

  1. According to the first few paragraphs, what are physical and emotional responses to being in love?
  2. The article says that love is not an emotion. What is it then?
  3. What two parts of the brain “lit up” when studying the brains of those who saw pictures of the person they love?
  4. Why did participants in the study have to count backward from a big number after seeing a picture of their loved one?
  5. What are two of the functions mentioned for the two parts of the brain that were active during the brain scans?
  6. What is dopamine, and what is its role in being in love?
  7. What is epinephrine, and how does it make those who are in love feel?
  8. When do people produce oxytocin?
  9. What are the various feelings oxytocin gives?
  10. In what stages of love do people more strongly produce oxytocin rather than dopamine and adrenaline?
  11. Why did “Dr. Love” stop shaking hands with people and start hugging them instead?

Critical Thinking Questions

Answer the following questions. Compare your answers with a partner.

  1. Why is this article referencing Cupid?
  2. Before reading this article, how much did you think hormones affected your emotions and feelings? After reading, do you think your opinion has changed?
  3. If our feelings are controlled by hormones, then how can people consciously control their feelings?
  4. What is the strangest thing you have done while in love? Do you think brain chemicals were involved in this decision?
  5. Do you think hugging people can improve your connections with them?

CEFR Level: CEF Level B2

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It’s All Greek to Me! by Charity Davenport is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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