Mammals and birds regularly express mate preferences and make mate choices. Data on mate choice among mammals suggest that this behavioural ‘attraction system’ is associated with dopaminergic reward pathways in the brain. It has been proposed that intense romantic love, a human cross-cultural universal, is a developed form of this attraction system. To begin to determine the neural mechanisms associated with romantic attraction in humans, we used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study 17 people who were intensely ‘in love’. Activation specific to the beloved occurred in the brainstem right ventral tegmental area and right postero-dorsal body of the caudate nucleus. These and other results suggest that dopaminergic reward and motivation pathways contribute to aspects of romantic love. We also used fMRI to study 15 men and women who had just been rejected in love. Preliminary analysis showed activity specific to the beloved in related regions of the reward system associated with monetary gambling for uncertain large gains and losses, and in regions of the lateral orbitofrontal cortex associated with theory of mind, obsessive/compulsive behaviours and controlling anger. These data contribute to our view that romantic love is one of the three primary brain systems that evolved in avian and mammalian species to direct reproduction. The sex drive evolved to motivate individuals to seek a range of mating partners; attraction evolved to motivate individuals to prefer and pursue specific partners; and attachment evolved to motivate individuals to remain together long enough to complete species-specific parenting duties. These three behavioural repertoires appear to be based on brain systems that are largely distinct yet interrelated, and they interact in specific ways to orchestrate reproduction, using both hormones and monoamines. Romantic attraction in humans and its antecedent in other mammalian species play a primary role: this neural mechanism motivates individuals to focus their courtship energy on specific others, thereby conserving valuable time and metabolic energy, and facilitating mate choice.
One contribution of 14 to a Theme Issue ‘The neurobiology of social recognition, attraction and bonding’.
- © 2006 The Royal Society