Paris, the City of Love

Visiting the Pont de Arts bridge in front of the Institut de France in Paris will leave you with a sense of true French “amour.” On father’s day, I had the opportunity to see the bridge up close. Despite seeing plenty of couples taking wedding pictures in front of the Eiffel Tower, buying macaroons at Laduree on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées, and enjoying an afternoon together in the gardens at the Palace of Versailles, the romance of this city hadn’t quite hit me. The instant I walked on to this bridge, I didn’t even notice the gorgeous view because I couldn’t see anything past the chain-linked railings on either side. I think I’m just starting to understand why Paris is known as the city of love.

Looking at the Institut de France from the Pont de Arts bridge

Looking at the Institut de France from the Pont de Arts bridge

On either side of the bridge, you will see thousands of locks that have been secured to the railings. The locks are on every grate all the way up from the bridge planks to the top of the fence. From a distance, the sides of the bridge appear to be completely opaque. I was actually worried that there might not be room to put more locks somewhere along the grates overlooking the Seine. To make sure the love that the lock represents lasts forever, the tradition is to throw the keys over the bridge and into the river after you secure the lock to the bridge. While this may be an act of littering, I guess the French disregard it for the sake of romance.

While plenty of couples do this to ensure their relationship will last forever, plenty of people do it for their families as well. As a girl who has grown up in a big family, I can never imagine life without them. My childhood was filled with memories at our lake cabin in Wisconsin, vacations to places like Colorado, Canada, and Grand Cayman, and most importantly, partying like pirates on Halloween. To sum up my feelings in a few short words, my mom is more than my best friend and my dad is larger than life. I can’t forget my amazing sisters Carley and Kris, and my best brother Tim too. (I promise I’ll get to talking about how this relates to neuroscience, and ignore the shoutouts if you want, but being in a city thriving on emotion has me feeling very sentimental!)

In order to recognize the faces of people that you are familiar with, your brain has created special networks for processing this visual information (Arsalidou et al., 2010). This especially holds true for the faces of parents. On either side of the brain, people have two areas known as the fusiform gyri that are thought to help recognize faces (Barton et al., 2002). The fusiform gyrus on the right side of the brain has been noted to be especially important in recognizing facial configuration (Barton et al., 2002). When this part of the brain is damaged, people present symptoms of prosopagnosia and cannot recognize faces (Barton et al., 2002). Due to an underlying emotional connection children typically have with their parents, other areas of the brain beyond the fusiform gyrus have been implicated in recognizing the two familiar faces of their parents (Arsalidou et al., 2010).

The highlighted part shows the fusiform gyrus

One of the cruxes of the study of parental face recognition performed by Arsalidou and associates in 2010 hinged upon the subjects growing up living with both parents, having both parents alive at the time of the study, and remaining in regular contact with their parents (Arsalidou et al., 2010). For people who grew up raised by another important adult figures, these areas of the brain may or may not be activating in the same way, but that was not considered as a part of this study (Arsalidou et al., 2010). The areas of the brain that activated when looking at the faces were measured by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) (Arsalidou et al., 2010). fMRI is a non-invasive way to measure the change in blood flow to certain regions in the brain; areas with the most blood flow are considered to be the most activated during a specific task.

When looking at pictures of their mother, the subjects’ fMRI scans showed the most parts of the brain being activated compared to all other presented faces (Arsalidou et al., 2010). This extensive activation suggests that the mother’s face is the most important face a person can recognize (Arsalidou et al., 2010). Many structures including the middle temporal gyrus and inferior frontal gyrus were activated in comparison to known, but not personally relevant, celebrity female faces (Arsalidou et al., 2010). These areas of the brain are located near the fusiform gyrus within the temporal lobe, which is located on the side of the brain (Arsalidou et al., 2010). The activation of the middle temporal and inferior frontal gyrus when looking at your mother’s face, areas thought to be related to processing recognition of your own face, seems to show that there may be an overlap in processing both the face of your mother and the appearance of your own face (Arsalidou et al., 2010). This may be due to an overlap between memories of your mother with memories you have of yourself given the very strong emotional attachment between mother and child (Arsalidou et al., 2010).

The highlighted part shows the temporal lobe

The faces of fathers specifically activated the caudate when compared to other known, but not personally applicable, celebrity males (Arsalidou et al., 2010). The caudate is a brain area associated with the memory of feelings of love or reward (Arsalidou et al., 2010). This brain structure was also active when the subjects looked at their mothers’ faces; however, other brain structures were more predominantly active than the caudate (Arsalidou et al., 2010). The caudate appears to contribute to a feeling of endearment we have towards our parents (Arsalidou et al., 2010).

The highlighted structure is the caudate

To sum up the findings, distinct patterns of areas in your brain are activated when you see the faces of people you are attached to, like your mother and father. From an evolutionary standpoint, this is very important for recognizing the people who will love and take care of you from every single other person in the world (Arsalidou et al., 2010). Greater activation when looking at your mother’s face may be due to the extensive emotional memory connection between a mother and child (Arsalidou et al., 2010). Significant activation in the caudate from seeing your father’s face may indicate our feeling of paternal love (Arsalidou et al., 2010). These patterns of activation are very important to a human being given the highly social nature of our species and how much we are emotionally attached to the people who raise us.

So, for the two people who have loved me more than anyone else in the world, I happily left a lock on the bridge. While I can’t wait to return home and have my brain activated in the specific patterns that only looking at the faces of my mother and father can do, I have a new appreciation of the amount of love shown in various ways throughout this city. I plan on enjoying every aspect of my last two weeks here, and hope to stumble upon more treasures like this bridge. No one in my family has ventured to Europe before I took this trip, and I hope that I can someday bring them back to show them the lock I left on the bridge for all of us.

Lots and lots of locks

Lots and lots of locks

One in a million

Sending my love all the way back to the crazy, fun, and cortically irreplaceable family I have back in Minnesota,

~ Emily Aidan Berthiaume

Works Cited

Arsalidou, M., Barbeau, E. J., Bayless, S. J., Taylor, M. J. (2010) Brain responses differ to faces of mothers and fathers. Brain and Cognition 74:47-51.

Barton, J. J.S., Press, D. Z., Keenan, J. P., O’Connor, M. (2002) Lesions of the fusiform face area impair perception of facial configuration in prosopagnosia. Neurology 58:71-78.

The Pont de Arts bridge is located to the right of the word "Seine" on the river

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