Psychology's John and Stephanie Cacioppo: Love on the Brain

Christopher Weber
Photo Credit: 
Stephanie Cacioppo, Research Associate (Assistant Professor)

There’s a common myth that certain people are “unlucky in love.” Try as they might, these hapless individuals are destined for loveless lives—or so say innumerable Hollywood films and talk show hosts.

Two leading brain researchers at the University of Chicago, however, say the opposite. Love is function of the brain, they argue, and a working brain is programmed for love.

“Love is universal. We all have the brain areas needed to feel love,” says Stephanie Cacioppo, Research Associate (Assistant Professor), who runs the High Performance Electrical Neuroimaging Laboratory at the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience. Cacioppo uses brain scans to pinpoint the telltale signs of this misunderstood emotion.

The result is a unique neurological roadmap to a feeling that’s befuddled poets and philosophers for centuries.

“Love is not only an emotion,” Cacioppo explains. “It is a mechanism that promotes companionship, mutual assistance and a genetic legacy. Love doesn’t activate the whole brain but a very specific brain network important for emotions, motivations, rewards, and high-order cognitive functions needed for self-representation and understanding the intentions of others.”

Some years ago at a scientific conference, she met John Cacioppo, the Tiffany and Margaret Blake Distinguished Service Professor and one of the creators of field of social neuroscience.

Now married, the two pursue their research in partnership. She focuses on love and desire, and he literally wrote the book on loneliness—namely, Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection (Norton, 2008). Not only do they share an office, but a desk—actually two desks, one at home and one at work, under which is stationed their protective Chinese Shar-Pei, Bacio (which is Italian for kiss).

Though the brain comes hardwired for love, it still requires the right person to stimulate those circuits. According to John Cacioppo’s research, loneliness provides a kind of emotional kick-in-the-pants to go out and make the kind of social connections that can lead to love.

“When I first started studying loneliness about 20 years ago, it was viewed as affliction with no redeeming features,” John explains. “It didn’t make sense to me that biology would have evolved such a state if it had no redeeming features. Loneliness is an aversive state that serves as a signal to attend to and take care of the social connections that define us as a species.”

And if loneliness isn’t enough to get a person looking for love, then lust is there to help. In brain scans, Stephanie Cacioppo have found that love figures heavily in the lower, more ancient parts of the brain that govern body functions: hunger, thirst, pain, and yes, sexual desire.

“Based on these findings, we can suggest that love grows more out of desire than the other way around,” says Stephanie.

Love is a function of the brain—but only when the brain in question is intact. In a collaboration with researchers abroad, the Cacioppos identified and identified a rare patient with a lesion isolated to the front portion of the insula, one of the areas essential to love. Such damage is extremely rare but also scientifically significant because it confirms the critical role played by key brain structures.

“Because of the area that the lesion was in, we made the hypothesis that the patient would have a disorder for love and not desire. And guess what?

“The patient’s brain scan showed a disorder in his responses to love.

“The patient was married when he had the stroke but has divorced since then.”

So, the Cacioppos’ formula for love might be summarized as follows: Have a brain; “listen” to loneliness; transcend desire; and wear a bike helmet to protect that delicate mechanics of this sublime feeling.


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