~ APRIL 2022 ~
Dr. Stephanie Cacioppo was well into her 30s before she fell in love.
Perhaps that seems odd for a neuroscientist who studies the effects and activity of love in the brain, but this gave her an objectivity that she otherwise wouldn’t have had. She valued her independence and emotional distance from what she was studying. But when she met her husband, John Cacioppo, a co-founder of the field ofsocial neuroscience, she describes the love that bloomed between them as a source of new and expanded learning rather than a hindrance.
She understood what love meant on a “cellular level” — something that had been missing from her work and life all along. And though John passed away in 2018, this love continues to inform her work.
Dr. Cacioppo currently works as an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience at the University of Chicago, where she directs the Brain Dynamics Laboratory at the Pritzker School of Medicine. In her new book, Wired for Love: A Neuroscientist’s Journey Through Romance, Loss, and the Essence of Human Connection, Dr. Cacioppo focuses on the groundbreaking discoveries that she’s made when it comes to love, alongside her personal story of experiencing it.
Shondaland spoke with Dr. Cacioppo about the biochemistry of love, neuroplasticity, learning from falling in love, and the overlap of science and poetry.
SARAH NEILSON: Can you talk about some of the chemical processes of falling in love and how you research the neuroscientific aspect of love?
DR. STEPHANIE CACIOPPO: Love is a complex phenomenon that activates both the very primitive regions in our brain and the most sophisticated areas in our brain. When we look for love, for instance, the areas that are supercharged in dopamine like the VTA (the ventral tegmental area) will pump all the dopamine in the feel-good reward circuit of your brain, which will then create feelings like euphoria or joy. That’s why you find yourself smiling all the time when you’re falling in love. It’s this supercharge of dopamine that your body and mind receives, especially the mind.
What’s fascinating is that the regions of the brain that are involved in more cognitive functions, like an area that is just above your left ear called the angular gyrus, will be hyperactivated. I found it fascinating because the angular gyrus is involved in complex functions like conceptual thinking, or your ability to create metaphors or understand metaphors, and also in your ability to connect dots in new ways.
What’s also interesting is that this area has evolved very recently in our history, and so not every species has it. That’s really something that makes us human, in a way, and that gives this special characteristic to love. The angular gyrus hadn’t been activated for other positive emotions like joy or surprise, and that’s why I suggest that love is not only a feeling or a basic emotion — it’s also a way of thinking. It’s like a mindset in a way. It’s both an emotion and a way of thinking.
When you feel this sense of calm and contentment when you are in love with your partner, you have what I would call a biological firework in your mind, with the 12 brain areas that are activating, and these areas trigger some of the most complex cognitive regions in our brain. That has very positive results on how we feel and how we can behave toward others, because these areas in the brain can help us feel compassion or be more creative or have a better memory. It also will unlock our ability to have an open mind and see the world from different perspectives. That’s why, also, when you are in love, you find yourself thinking faster or feeling better or even dreaming bigger.
SN: This book focuses on romantic love, and I found myself wondering about lots of different kinds of love and friendship, and how they differ from a neuroscience perspective, especially for queer people and asexual and aromantic people.
SC: Love is a universal biological necessity and is as important to our well-being as nutritious food or exercise or clean water. I would like to emphasize the fact that it’s universal. People often feel that their love story is unique, but on a neurobiological level, love, and including romantic love, looks the same no matter who felt it.
Regardless of where you were born or however you identify, as gay or straight, male, female, transgender, or anything, if a person is significant to you, they will light up this love network and these 12 brain areas of love in the same essential way.
There is this beautiful, subconscious, collective, universal beauty of love that I think is important to emphasize here, especially when you mentioned the queer community. The holistic view I have of love from my research and my personal experience is really inclusive, and I just wanted to clarify that.
To address your questions and thoughts on friendship, what I have found is that we have areas of the brain that are activating in specific ways. I thought that one of the best ways to try to disentangle the brain areas that are specific to romantic love was to compare a romantic passion for someone versus the passions you might have for sports.
My research showed me that the areas that are most activated when you are passionately in love with someone are very similar to the areas that are activated when you identify with a sport or with another passion, and the intensity is slightly less for friendship. Similar brain areas will be activated. It’s mostly the intensity that will vary.
For instance, I found out that passion for someone and for your favorite sport will trigger some of the most sophisticated parts of your brain, like the angular gyrus, all these higher-order brain areas that are known to be important for abstract representation of language but also abstract representations of yourself, the way you define who you are right now. The more you identify with something or with someone, the more you will activate the angular gyrus. It was surprising to discover this because these areas are not typically associated with matters of the heart.
SN: You write that you were someone who, until you were in your mid-30s, saw yourself as detached from romantic love even though you were studying it. Then, when you met your husband, John Cacioppo, and fell in love, you felt that power and experienced it more fully. Can you talk a little bit about what you observed in yourself in that transition?
SC: I was fiercely independent for many years, and really wore my solitude as a badge of honor. I thought that would be my fate, to be single for the rest of my life, and I was at peace with it. I thought that it was ironic for me to be a neuroscientist studying love and be single. That was something that would make a good cocktail conversation. But I also saw it as a beautiful and objective way to be a more objective scientist who could have an emotional distance between my own personal life and the research that I could then discover in my scientific endeavors. I was really at peace with this. Then, when I fell in love with the love of my life, I really understood love at a cellular level, really from a different perspective. I always thought that I understood all the essential elements of love from my research, but my husband really helped me understand love from a more cellular level. It showed me love through the lens of humanity, I would say. That’s the beauty that I was trying to explain, that love is universal. In my experience, I’ve found that together, we were better than the sum of the parts. I could still recognize my younger self in me, but I also discovered a deeper sense of self, a self that was constantly evolving and learning. That was a beautiful thing to observe as well, and I think a way to approach love without expectations. With my husband, we were constantly curious and spontaneous, as I describe in the book. We really saw each other with a fresh eye every day, and I think that really helped us keep the spark in our love relationship every single day.
It’s interesting because we often take people for granted, right? When you go on a date for the first time, you ask all these questions to your partner; you have all these questions to try to discover who their self is to see if it could align with the values of yourself, and that’s a good thing. I wish people could keep doing that in their relationships even after a few weeks, after a few months, or after a few years.
Never take your partner for granted, and keep curious about who they are and how their own self evolves.
SN: Speaking of your late husband, he was one of the founders of the branch of science referred to associal neuroscience, and one of his primary areas of study was loneliness. Can you talk about your own experience and research around the neuroscience of loneliness and how that interacts with your research about love?
SC: First, I think we need to define what loneliness is. From a scientific lens, loneliness is a discrepancy between what you want and what you have in a relationship. If you want to be by yourself and you are physically alone, you will not feel lonely. This definition helps us to understand that one is not the loneliest number. You can feel extremely lonely in a relationship or in a marriage if you feel that reality falls short of your expectations. If you have a script in your mind of how your relationship should play out and they are behaving differently, then you put yourself at risk for falling into the spiral of loneliness. One key finding that my late husband discovered in his research on loneliness is that expectations kill gratitude, and also expectations are the fastest road to loneliness in a way.
I see loneliness and love on the same spectrum on two opposite sides. My late husband used to describe loneliness like an iceberg with the top at the surface of the ocean being what is conscious to us, and with most of it being subconscious and under the surface. I would like to suggest that love is also an iceberg, and it’s just the other side of that same iceberg with some of it being mostly subconscious. If you combine my late husband’s research and my own research, I would say that loneliness is actually the opposite of love. Love is that feeling of social connectedness, this feeling of plenty that is fulfilling.
Neuroimaging studies have reinforced this by showing that the size of some of the main regions in our brain, like the amygdala or the frontal and temporal lobes, correlates with the size of our social connections and our social networks. This has been shown also across phylogeny. For instance, different social species, including the desert locust, which shows an impressive growth of their brain when they are in a social setting. Some parts of their brain grow by 30 percent just because they are among others, compared to their brain when they are in a solitary state.
SN: You write, “If you define romantic love in a broad and polymorphous way as just a deep affection and attachment, it is of course possible to love a person without desiring them physically. But if you define love based on its unique neurobiological blueprint, it is clear that desire is not an incidental feature of a loving relationship but an essential ingredient. This desire, as we will discover, doesn’t necessarily need to be sexual, but it must be physical. … It must involve not just the mind but the body as well.” Can you talk about this physicality of love, of desire, and what it means to you as a person and a neuroscientist?
SC: Based on my research and my personal experience, it seems like we cannot fully love without involving the mind, the body, and the heart. They are critical parts of love. I need to specify that physical intimacy doesn’t necessarily need to be sexual. Physical intimacy is important to help us not only form an emotional connection with our partner but also to make us feel alive, and that makes us understand the importance of our physical body. That’s something that the scholar Joseph Campbell called the rapture of being alive, and something that he believed was what most of us are actually searching for in life, with the goal being that life experiences on the purely physical plane have resonances with our innermost being and reality. What’s interesting is that when you are with a partner, you can have different ways to activate your mind, body, and heart to have this full experience of love. You can go for walks together. You can cook or dance together. All this is important to really make you feel alive, and there is nothing more beautiful than when you can say that your partner makes you feel alive.
SN: You also write, “People rarely look to neuroscience to help them understand something as majestic, as mysterious, as profound, as love. More often they turn to poets.” How do you grapple with or embrace or otherwise approach the art/science overlap, and the mystery of both?
SC: I think both poetry and neuroscience are necessary to understand the full meaning of love. I’m biased in this response because I’m a poet at heart. I think they can both give us a different sense of the beauty of this invisible bond that binds all of us together and that also binds two human beings together just by choice alone. If I can have only one key message for today, it would be from Maya Angelou, who encourages people, through her beautiful writing, to have enough courage to trust love one more time, always one more time. That’s something that I live and breathe every day. Have enough courage to trust love one more time and always one more time.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Sarah Neilson is a freelance writer. They can be found on Twitter@sarahmariewrote.