If you know me, you’ll know that one of my favorite films is the French movie, “Amélie” (2001). Set in none other than the charming French village of Montmartre, “Amélie” tells a whimsical story of attraction and love. Once a hub for working-class citizens, Montmartre drew many artists with its liberal reputation. Renowned painters van Gogh, Renoir, and Toulouse-Lautrec were among the many to call the village home (Myers, 2007).
I was thrilled to visit the village with a group of my friends. After a few hours exploring, one particular sight remained with me. A gate heavy with love locks — a common sight in the so-called city of love and a symbol of couples’ eternal love. Between the love locks, the cobbled streets, and Le Mur des Je T’aime, my Montmartre, like Amélie’s, spoke of whimsy and love.
Theories of love have evolved and developed constantly for centuries. Some of us believe in love at first sight. Others, like those who hang their locks upon gates, believe in eternal love. All of us have experienced love in some form or another, whether it be companionate, romantic, or maternal.
One study aiming to answer the question of whether romantic love lasts, observed through functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) that the test subjects, 10 women and 7 men in reported long-term romantic relationships, exhibited significant brain activity in dopamine-rich areas and areas associated with maternal love when shown images specific to their romantic partners (Acevedo et al., 2012). Responses to long-term partners’ images were measured alongside control images of close friends, familiar acquaintances, and low-familiar acquaintances. Researchers gave participants questionnaires measuring romantic love, obsession, IOS (closeness with one’s partner), friendship-based love, sexual frequency, and relationship length. In short, activation patterns in patients’ brain regions suggested that subjects experienced pleasure when presented with stimuli related to their long-term romantic partners. The ventral tegmental area (VTA), an area of the brain often generally associated with romantic love, showed activation in long-term relationships as well. Interestingly, among activated regions was the posterior hippocampus, an area that seems to activate in response to hunger or cravings (LaBar et al., 2001; Pelchat et al., 2004) — which makes me feel a tiny bit better about my love for ice cream.
While signifiers of romantic love activated dopamine-rich brain areas related to desire, those related to friendship largely activated opiate-rich ones related to pleasure. The study cites a key distinction previously established by researchers Berridge and Robinson, between “wanting” and “liking,” that positions the two as mutually exclusive. While wanting someone is related to the reward that long-term romantic bonds connote, liking someone is more so an aspect of attachment and pair-bonds. Acevedo and her team wrote that, as a drive, romantic desire is unlike basic emotions in that it is comparatively goal-driven and “hard to control” (Acevedo et al., 2012). They observed that the brains of those in long-term romantic relationships also exhibited significant activity in the opiate- and serotonin-rich areas associated with friendly attachment — activity that is absent from early-stage romance.
An article published by Song et al. in 2015 focuses on a similar study that supports the role of romantic love in altering brain architecture, results which align with those of previous fMRI studies (Song et al., 2015). Song et al. acknowledges the work of Acevedo et al. in using fMRI to propose brain regions related and unrelated to romantic love, as well as the work of later researchers (Cacioppo et al., 2012) in dividing these identified regions into those responsible for emotion, reward, and memory, and those responsible for social cues and memory. One weakness of the present study is its longitudinal approach, a model which often resists laboratory control. Song et al. suggest that future research conducted on the topic implement cognitive and behavioral tasks to directly test the hypothesis that love-related alterations of resting brain function reflect an evolutionary drive to select the most fit partner (de Boer et al., 2012). Still, despite its limitations, the study by Song et al. is ultimately valuable because it highlights the function of romantic love.
Ultimately, the study by Acevedo et al. posits that long-term relationships can sustain reward- and value-based brain signals similar to those typically observed during the beginning stages of love, while also fostering the type of “liking” associated with friendly attachment and bonding. In other words, long-term romantic love is possible, and one can love their partner and be their best friend, too.
Of the hundreds and thousands of Parisians and tourists who’ve eternalized their romances on locks upon the fences of Paris, maybe some will succeed. All of us will find love in Paris, whether it be with the city, other people, or life itself. And I can’t wait to find out what comes my way!
Acevedo BP, Aron A, Fisher HE, Brown LL (2012) Neural correlates of long-term intense romantic love. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience 7:145-159. https://doi.org/10.1093/scan/nsq092.
Cacioppo S, Bianchi-Demicheli F, Frum C, Pfaus JG, Lewis JW (2012) The common neural bases between sexual desire and love: a multilevel kernel density fMRI analysis. The Journal of Sexual Medicine 9:1048-1054. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1743-6109.2012.02651.x.
de Boer A, Van Buel EM, Ter Horst GJ (2012) Love is more than just a kiss: a neurobiological perspective on love and affection. Neuroscience 201:114-124. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroscience.2011.11.017.
LaBar KS, Gitelman DR, Mesulam MM, Parrish TB (2001). Impact of signal-to-noise on functional MRI of the human amygdala. Neuroreport 12:3461–4.
Myers N (2007) The Lure of Montmartre, 1880–1900. Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.
Paris Convention and Visitors Bureau (n.d.) Le mur des je t’aime. Paris.
Pelchat ML, Johnson A, Chan R, Valdez J, Ragland JD (2004) Images of desire: food-craving activation during fMRI. Neuroimage 23:1486–93.
Song H, Zou Z, Kou J, Liu Y, Yang L, Zilverstand A, Uquillas Fd, Zhang X (2015) Love-related changes in the brain: a resting state functional magnetic resonance imaging study. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2015.00071.
Image 1, Café des 2 Moulins from “Amélie” (2001): Wikimedia Commons.
Images 2-3 were taken by myself.