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Monday, Sept. 4, 2000


Hyping the neurology of love, or does science demystify the world?

The media went into overdrive when scientists at University College London recently announced they had measured love. Nothing can escape the explanatory power of science -- not even love, cried the media. After the report was aired on the BBC, the news reader gave a sigh and said, "It kind of takes the mystery out of it, doesn't it?"

It was a light-hearted story with a superhigh human interest factor (there's not much that's more interesting than love), but what's underlying the media reaction? What if the report was something about cloning or genetically modified foods? Obviously, the tone would be less light-hearted and more sensationalist.

But is it true that advances in science take the mystery out of the world? Let's look at what the scientists really did.

The researchers, Andreas Bartels and Semir Zeki, used a functional magnetic resonance imager to scan the brains of 17 volunteers (11 women and six men) who were truly, madly, deeply in love. All were in their mid-20s and had fallen in love in the last six months to one year.

For magnetic resonance imaging the volunteer is first placed into a strong magnetic field. Atomic nuclei align themselves with this field, "magnetizing" the volunteer. Applying a brief pulse of radio waves disturbs the alignment of the nuclei and changes the magnetization, which can be formed into an image. The signal changes with blood oxygenation, so the image reveals areas of the brain which are active or nonactive by measuring the levels of blood flow.

When the love-struck volunteers were in the scanner, the researchers showed them a photograph of their loved one, or a friend of the same sex as their partner. The results of the scans were clear-cut. Seeing a lover caused activity in brain regions that were not activated when the volunteer looked at pictures of a friend, and caused a reduction in activity elsewhere.

Bartels and Zeki then looked at what was already known about these parts of the brain. Two of the active areas were deep in the cortex: the medial insula, which is thought to be where "gut" feelings come from, and part of the anterior cingulate, which is known to be activated by euphoria-inducing drugs like MDMA (Ecstasy). The other active areas were deeper still, in the striatum, which is active during rewarding experiences. The inactive region was in the right prefrontal cortex, which is highly active in depressed patients.

According to Bartels, a postgraduate student of Zeki, "When you're very much in love, you have this butterfly feeling in your stomach. That might be due to the medial insula, which is a highly connected region with links to all the sensory areas of the brain."

Now for a show of hands. Who thinks that this has demystified love? Does this work mean that the next time you fall in love you'll just shrug and put it down to that overactive anterior cingulate? That when you meet someone and you just know that he or she is the person for you, you'll feel the experience is lessened because you know that gut feeling is coming from your medial insula?

Of course not. It is surely more interesting and mystifying to learn that your life may be consumed by love, and it is only activity in a few specific areas of the brain that is responsible. No one would suggest that the experience of love is now dulled because we know which parts of the brain are activated. So why was it reported like that?

Clearly, because there is fear and mistrust about science, and where it is taking us.

And what about genetically modified foods? There is a widely held view that making GM foods is "unnatural." If changing the genes in plants is unnatural, then so were the first prehistoric attempts at farming. So is all agriculture. Genetically modifying foods is what farmers have always done, except now there is far more control.

Fifty to 60 percent of the crop seed sold in the U.S. is genetically modified. After stringent tests and trials, soya beans, rape seed, cotton, tobacco, tomatoes, potatoes, maize, cereals and many other plants have been marketed, sold and consumed. Many GM foods that have shown a slight chance of causing allergic reactions in some people have been withdrawn, despite their potential benefits.

When a plant is made genetically resistant to some insect pest, less insecticide is used in the environment, less fuel is used to drive the tractors to apply the insecticide and fewer trucks are sent out to deliver the insecticide.

On the other hand, the opposite could also occur: Herbicide could be indiscriminately applied to the fields, killing all other (non-GM plants), and more fuel could be used to drive the tractors to apply the herbicide, etc. It is, as always, how the new knowledge is used which determines the outcome, not the new knowledge itself.

New knowledge can solve the problems of the environment, reduce suffering, cure disease; it can also be used in ways which damage the environment and cure diseases -- at a profit to pharmaceutical companies.

People who categorically criticize science would do well to remember that they are only in a position to be able to do so because of what science has given them. Love is surely not demystified by knowing which parts of the brain are active. And even if it was, verifiable knowledge is preferable to mystical guesses.

If it wasn't, we'd still be living in caves and eating berries.

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