April 12, 2009
Science unlocks secrets of our deepest love
The mystery of what drives us to offer unconditional love is being unravelled
THE secrets of unconditional love, one of the most mysterious emotions, are being uncovered by scientists tracing the unique brain activity it creates.
They have found that the emotion, experienced as a desire to care for another person without any thought of reward, emerges from a complex interplay between seven separate areas of the brain.
Such brain activity has only limited overlap with the cerebral impulses seen in romantic or sexual love, suggesting it should be seen as an entirely separate emotion.
Professor Mario Beauregard, of Montreal University’s centre for research into neurophysiology and cognition, who led the study, said: “Unconditional love, extended to others without exception, is considered to be one of the highest expressions of spirituality. “ However, nothing has been known regarding its neural underpinnings until now.”
Scientists are interested in unconditional love as evolutionary theory suggests we should feel such emotions only for people who help us pass our genes to future generations, such as spouses and children.
Our fascination with the many forms of love is reflected by Hollywood, with films such as War of the Worlds, where Tom Cruise’s character risks his life to save his estranged daughter. The unconditional love he displays contrasts with the obsessive sexual emotions in films such as Basic Instinct or the romantic love portrayed by Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman in the epic Australia.
In the real world, however, unconditional love is often experienced towards people with whom there is no connection. The question is: why? To carry out the study, Beauregard recruited subjects with a proven ability to feel strong unconditional love: low-paid assistants looking after people with learning difficulties. Beauregard asked them to evoke feelings of unconditional love and hold them in their minds while they had a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan.
Of the seven brain areas that became active, three were similar to those of romantic love. The others were different, suggesting a separate kind of love.
Beauregard’s discoveries showed that some of the areas activated when experiencing unconditional love were also involved in releasing dopamine. This chemical is deeply involved in sensing pleasure, with rising levels strongly linked to feelings of reward and even euphoria.
In a research paper in an academic journal, he said: “The rewarding nature of unconditional love facilitates the creation of strong emotional links. Such robust bonds may critically contribute to the survival of the human species.”
Additional reporting: John Harlow
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