How Much Love Can You Create in an fMRI in 5 Minutes?

In an interesting “1st Annual Love Competition” associated with The Stanford Center for Cognitive and Neurobiological Imaging, contestants had 5 minutes in an fMRI machine to love someone as hard as they could.

The brain regions involved in producing the neurochemical experience of love were measured, and the contestant who generated the greatest level of activity in those areas would be the winner.

Here is an excellent short film on the competition along with a background story behind each contestant (and what object of “love” they chose to focus on for the 5 minutes).

The contest is definitely not a true scientific study. As you can tell from the interviews, each individual focused on a different kind of love. The older man who came in first place reflected on his 50 year healthy and intimate relationship with his wife. The 10 year old who came in second reminisced on the fun moments he’s had with his baby cousin.

Another young man focused on an ex-girlfriend he used to love but, as it turned out, his feelings weren’t as strong as they used to be. And one participant didn’t even focus on a particular person, but instead did a kind of loving-kindness meditation where she focused on producing “warm feelings” in her chest and head (she described it as a shortened “chakra meditation”). Unfortunately the video doesn’t tell us how well she did.

As you can see, everyone has different interpretations of love, which can make it hard to accurately measure. Neuroscientists believe that increases in certain hormones like oxytocin are related to trust, social recognition, intimacy, empathy, pair-bonding and other behaviors we often associate with love. Oxytocin is even sometimes referred to as “the love hormone.”

However, in “The Love Competition,” researchers determined the winner by who had the strongest signal in a part of the brain called the nuclues accumbens. This region of the brain is often associated with reward and pleasure, and studies show that the nuclues accumbens often becomes very activated when long-married couples stare at a picture of a loved one.

Mind Hacks contacted Melina Uncapher, one of the Stanford researchers behind the contest, who said this:

    “I should say at the outset that it was not intended to be a study, nor was it intended to discover anything new about the brain. It was intended to be a public outreach piece, to help raise awareness that science can be beautiful (in the hopes of advancing interest in science). The finding was simply this: when a group of participants were instructed to ruminate on the person or concept they associate with love, BOLD signal in the nucleus accumbens showed individual differences.

    Here, the person with the highest signal in nucleus accumbens was considered the winner. Contestants were instructed to this prior to entering in the scanner. They all met each other during the interviewing stage, so there was a bit of competitiveness in the air, but it was tempered by the fact that they were considering those they love.”

So while this contest is really interesting, it’s definitely not science. In the future, I hope to see much more legitimate research on the neuroscience behind love, especially the different types of love we tend to act out throughout our daily lives (friendship, romantic, compassion, etc.) – and hopefully we can learn more about their similarities and differences.

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