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Relationship Dissection

Sex, Love, and Brain Scans


Down underground, in the basement of UCSB’s psychology building, behind two locked doors and another emblazoned with red hazard signs, a man lies in a pitch-black room, his skull in a scanner. Behind a window, lab techs stare silently at black-and-white renderings of his gray matter.

If this clinical scene doesn’t make your heart flutter, your face flush, and your guts flip-flop with jumpy juice, then you’re clearly not a scientist at the university’s Brain Imaging Center.

Starshine Roshell

But Bianca Acevedo is. She’s a postdoctoral research fellow (am I the only one who enjoys calling women fellows?) who studies the neuroscience of love. “It’s a relatively new field, but it’s flourishing quickly,” said Acevedo, who spends her days translating lofty romantic notions into precise scientific terms. Working with the campus’s “Close Relationships Lab,” she uses a “Passionate Love Scale” to evaluate the “neural correlates of long-term pair-bonding.”

All of which would be funny if it weren’t just a little bit creepy.

I’m troubled by this impulse to dissect l’amour mystérieux and examine it under a microscope—to pin capricious Cupid’s wings to a specimen board for cold, controlled analysis. Call me old-fashioned, but I liked it better when all we knew about love came from song lyrics. Love, if you recall, was strange. It was cruel. It was blind. Love was a battlefield. It was the drug. It lifted us up where we belonged.

This information was cheesy, and it was useless. But it sounded better with a backbeat than Acevedo’s FM-unfriendly definition: “Love is a very basic drive,” she deadpanned. “It’s the craving for union with the beloved.”

Her own beloved is a professor in UCSB’s statistics department. They were married last June. And though she’s currently studying 20 newlyweds to track how love develops over time, she refused to entertain my obnoxious questions about how her research spills over into her own love life.

What she does like to talk about is her work. By showing her subjects photos of their sweethearts, and noting any changes in the blood oxygen levels of their brains, Acevedo can tell what kind of love they’re experiencing: passionate and exciting love like that of new lovers, or secure and calming love like that of long-attached couples. She was surprised and encouraged to find, in one study, that 40 percent of long-married couples experienced both.

Other studies in her field have revealed that falling in love triggers the same system of our brains that’s activated if we use cocaine—but without those pesky nosebleeds, which is nice. They’ve also found that oxytocin, the “bonding” hormone, can actually help couples get along better.

Close relationships have the ability to impact our lives in really positive ways,” Acevedo said, pointing out that happy marriages have even been linked to better health. “And when things aren’t going well in relationships, people suffer.”

But will romance suffer from too much scientific prodding? We already know so much about so much. We know that a rainbow is really just a refraction of sunlight. We know that thunder is merely the sound of air being heated by lightning and expanding (okay, I didn’t know that one until I just looked it up). Will the dissection of affection thoroughly suck the magic out of, er, pair-bonding?

It’ll take a more dispassionate mind than mine to answer that question. But if you’d like to help Acevedo answer hers, she’s looking for more subjects to take part in her research. You can find her psych.ucsb.edu.

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