Keeping Love Alive

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scientist studying loveIn this Wall Street Journal article, scientists look at research on two couples who are admittedly anomalies; they are still in love after ten years of marriage. No researcher seems to be looking at the thesis that fertilization-driven sex promotes separation, and that, therefore, the stability of these relationships may be related to age and less fertilization-driven sex. Both relationships are (at least) second marriages - just as the Coolidge Effect would predict. In each case one or both partners married in middle age, when libido was presumably lower.

Could these couples unwittingly be tapping the wisdom of lots of cuddling with less fertilization-driven sex? Consider this experiment, which showed less conflict and stress in an older couple, who, presumably were also engaging in less fertilization-driven sex. Will pharmaceutical companies soon be offering us powerful psychotropic drugs, likely with risky side effects, to reach for the goal of sustainable harmony, which the Taoists figured out how to achieve naturally, thousands of years ago?

Incidentally, the social monogamy of the animals pictured in this article is very heart-warming. Alas, it does not correlate with sexual exclusivity. Biology prefers multiple partners as it increases the genetic variety of our offspring.

Neuroscientists are probing why some married couples can maintain the spark for years.

Ann Tucker is pushing a shopping cart through the produce section of a supermarket in Plainview, N.Y., when she turns to kiss her husband. The supermarket kiss is a regular ritual for the Tuckers. So are the restaurant kiss and the traffic-light kiss. "I guess we do kiss a lot," says Mrs. Tucker, a 39-year-old mathematician at a money-management firm.

Mrs. Tucker is living happily ever after, and scientists are curious why. She belongs to a small class of men and women who say they live in the thrall of early love despite years of marriage, busy jobs and other daily demands that normally chip away at passion.

Most couples find that the dizzying, almost-narcotic feeling of early love gives way to a calmer bond. Now, researchers are using laboratory science to investigate Mrs. Tucker and others who live fairy-tale romances. The studies could help reveal the workings of lifelong passion and perhaps one day lead to a restorative.

Philosophers and writers have long examined passion and love. The 19th century introduced psychologists and sociologists to the discussion. In recent years, neuroscientists have joined in. While love is historically tied to the heart, they are looking for answers in the brain, using magnetic imaging and other modern tools to try to map love's pathways.

Psychologists studying relationships confirm the steady decline of romantic love. Each year, according to surveys, the average couple loses a little spark. One sociological study of marital satisfaction at the University of Nebraska- Lincoln and Penn State University kept track of more than 2,000 married people over 17 years. Average marital happiness fell sharply in the first 10 years, then entered a slow decline.

couple in experimentAbout 15 years ago, Arthur Aron, a social psychologist at Stony Brook University, became curious about couples outside the norm. His own work turned up the usual pattern of declining passion. But he was drawn to what statisticians call outliers, points way off the curve. These dots represented people who claimed they'd been madly in love for years. "I didn't know what to make of that," Dr. Aron says. "Was it random error? Were they selfdeceiving? Were they deceiving others? Because it's not supposed to happen."

On a clear day in late August, Mrs. Tucker visited New York University's Center for Brain Imaging. There, a four-ton device called a functional magnetic-resonance imaging scanner would analyze her brain while she looked at a photo of her husband. The machines record changes in oxygen levels of blood feeding the brain. Because the brain is quick to supply fresh blood to working areas, researchers use them to see where the brain is more active during such mental tasks as recognizing words or feeling love.

Mrs. Tucker drove in with Bianca Acevedo, one of Dr. Aron's graduate students. Ms. Acevedo's doctoral dissertation studies brain images to compare new love with long-term love.

Only a handful of studies have used magnetic imaging to study love, in part because scientists debate whether it is a good measure of hard-to-define mental states. The first widely cited study, published in 2000, scanned men and women who claimed to be madly in love. It found evidence that love could be traced in the brain.

Over the next few years, Dr. Aron collaborated on a study that would push further. Published in 2005, it helped establish the link between romantic love and the so-called reward-seeking circuitry, which is thought to be linked to such deep motivations as thirst or drug addiction. Dr. Aron joined Helen Fisher, an anthropologist at Rutgers University in New Jersey, and Lucy L. Brown, a neuroscientist at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York's Bronx borough. They examined blood flow in the brains of 17 volunteers, mostly college students, who were scanned as they looked at photos of their lovers.

They found robust activity in a brain region called the ventral tegmental area, which is rich in dopamine, a brain chemical connected to feelings of pleasure. Another of Dr. Aron's students repeated the results in China, bolstering the case that romantic love is a biological drive
not bound by culture.

None of the published studies, however, focused on people in long-term relationships. Ms. Acevedo's research plan -- hatched with Drs. Aron, Fisher and Brown -- was to repeat the experiment with people who had been in love for more than a decade to see how they compare. The first hurdle was finding such couples.scientist studying loveVIDEO DESCRIBING RESEARCH

Mrs. Tucker is a meticulous woman with black hair in a pixie cut who moved to the U.S. from Korea when she was 5. She is shy and speaks carefully, sometimes slipping into statistical jargon when talking with her husband. When the two Ph.D.s plan a party they weigh a "Type I error" against a "Type II error," too little food or too much.

Her husband, Alan, 64, is a lanky, applied-math professor at Stony Brook who speaks with a youthful enthusiasm. They met sitting across a horseshoe-shaped table at a math conference in the Adirondack Mountains. "I knew immediately we'd get married," Mrs. Tucker says. They got their marriage license less than a year later, on Valentine's Day.

They share a two-story home in Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y. One afternoon last fall, their son Teddy, now 10, works his PlayStation, and their toddler James plays with a toy train. Mr. Tucker recounts their courtship. "After the second date, it would be three steps, stop and kiss," he says. After nearly 11 years of marriage, they still see each other as romantic ideals.

Researchers also found Michelle Jordan, a 59-year-old communications consultant, and her husband, Billy Owens. On a cross-country flight, she sat next to Mr. Owens, a wellbuilt man from Gadsden, Ala. "I had this immediate reaction of, 'What a nice-looking guy,' " she says. They chatted throughout the flight, her dry wit mixing with his easy charm.

socially monogamous animalsMs. Jordan and Mr. Owens lived in different cities so it took months of long-distance dating before their first kiss. "You're always cautious about setting yourself up for disappointment again," recalls Ms. Jordan, who was 42 at the time. They married three years later and now live in Newport Beach,
Calif. Even now, Ms. Jordan still seeks her husband's hand when they're together. "It comes very naturally," she says.

Ms. Acevedo was confident that such long-term love was a real if somewhat rare phenomenon. Brain activity in the ventral tegmental area would support the idea. Dr. Brown, the neuroscientist on the project, was skeptical. Her theory: Mrs. Tucker and Ms. Jordan weren't experiencing the same brain
impulses as new lovers, and brain scans would show that.

Mrs. Tucker recalls taking off a gold bracelet, a gift from her husband, before sliding into the fMRI machine. Images of her husband are reflected on a mirror above her. She recalls feeling "a warm contentment."

Until recently, most neuroscientists considered love an ill-defined topic best avoided. But a growing body of work showed that our attachments have a neurological underpinning. In 1996, a privately funded conference in Stockholm took the title "Is there a neurobiology of love?" Among the organizers was Sue Carter, an expert on the prairie-vole brain.

The prairie vole is a North American rodent that mostly mates for life, making it a useful proxy for studying human attachment. Dr. Carter, a neuroendocrinologist now at the University of Illinois at Chicago, helped establish a link between vole monogamy and oxytocin -- the so-called love hormone that helps bind mates, as well as mothers and their offspring.

Psychologists and social scientists worked on a different track, applying their theories about love to social experiments and surveys. Their most popular measure is the Passionate Love Scale. People are asked to score 15 statements about their lovers, such as, "For me, [blank] is the perfect romantic partner."

socially monogamous animalsThe work of Dr. Aron and his colleagues reflects growing collaboration between the social and neurosciences.

Days after Mrs. Tucker's brain scan, Dr. Brown, the neuroscientist, sat in her book-lined office looking at the results. "Wow, just wow," she recalls thinking. Mrs. Tucker's brain reacted to her husband's photo with a frenzy of activity in the ventral tegmental area. "I was shocked," Dr. Brown says.

The brain scan confirmed what Mrs. Tucker said all along. But when she learned the result, she too was a bit surprised. "It's not something I expected after 11 years," she says. "But having it, it's like a gift."

The scan also showed a strong reaction in Mrs. Tucker's ventral pallidum, an area suspected from vole studies to have links with long-term bonds. Mrs. Tucker apparently enjoyed old love and new. In the months since, Dr. Brown analyzed data from four more people, including Ms. Jordan, who also showed brain activity associated with new love. The study is ongoing, and more volunteers are being sought.

There is much work ahead before scientists can map the human-attachment system and learn what factors affect it. A love drug is an even more distant dream.

"People in the field, we've kidded about it, but nobody thinks it's, in the short term, realistic," says Dr. Aron. "Of course, maybe we'll be contacted by a pharmaceutical company, and they'll give us $10 zillion and we'll find something."

By SAM SCHECHNER - Wall Street Journal
Write to Sam Schechner at Sam.Schechner@wsj.com1

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