According to scientists brain images show that falling in love can look for all the world like mental illness with a mixture of mania, dementia and obsession that cuts people off from friends and family prompting uncharacteristic behavior which could almost be mistaken for psychosis.
Neuroscientists have for the first time produced brain scan images of this fevered activity, before it settles into the wine and roses phase of romance.
Researchers argue that analysis of the images shows romantic love is a biological urge distinct from sexual arousal, and is in fact closer in its neural profile to drives like hunger.
According to Dr. Helen Fisher, an anthropologist at Rutgers University and the co-author of the analysis, when in the throes of this romantic love it is so overwhelming that the person is out of control and irrational.
But experts caution that brain imaging technology cannot read people's minds, and a phenomenon as many-sided and socially influenced as love transcends simple computer graphics such as those produced by the technique used in the study, called functional MRI.
However Dr. Hans Breiter, director of the Motivation and Emotion Neuroscience Collaboration at Massachusetts General Hospital, who declares he distrusts 95 percent of the MRI literature, give this study an A, he says 'it really moves the ball in terms of understanding infatuation love'.
Dr. Fisher along with Dr. Lucy Brown of Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx and Dr. Arthur Aron, a psychologist at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, led a team that analyzed about 2,500 brain images from 17 college students who were in the first weeks or months of new love. The students looked at a picture of their beloved while an MRI machine scanned their brains.
In the study, a computer-generated map of particularly active areas showed hot spots deep in the brain. These areas are dense with cells that produce or receive a brain chemical called dopamine, which circulates actively when people desire or anticipate a reward.
The researchers found that one particular spot in the MRI images was especially active in people who scored highly on a questionnaire measuring passionate love, and this passion-related region appears in an area of the brain that takes care of most basic functions, like eating, drinking and eye movements.
The study appears in The Journal of Neurophysiology.