by David Derbyshire
Love may not be blind, but it does make you dumb, according to brain scans of people in the early days of a romance.
MRI images show that when people gaze at pictures of their loved ones, the rational parts of their brains shut down, allowing the heart to rule the head. As a result, wouldbe suitors, their critical faculties dulled, are more likely to overlook niggling personality traits.
Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Oxford, believes that the “rose-tinted spectacles” effect encourages people to take greater risks.
“What seems to be happening is that you have subconsciously made up your mind that you are interested in the person and the rational bit of the brain — the bit that would normally say ‘hang on a minute’ — gets switched off,” he said. “The more emotional parts of the brain are given a free ride. It looks very much like the rose-tinted spectacles kicking in.”
Professor Dunbar’s theory emerged after he analysed findings of brain scan
experiments carried out a decade ago at University College London. The research by Semir Zeki and Andreas Bartels used functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging to look at the brain activity of 17 volunteers as they were shown pictures of their boyfriends or girlfriends. The volunteers were recruited to the experiment because all professed to be “truly, madly and deeply in love”. As they lay in the MRI scanner, they were shown three images of friends and one of their partner. “What struck me looking at the data was that parts of the frontal lobe, which is the region of the brain that does the heavy rational work, were deactivated when they looked at pictures of their beloved, compared to pictures of their friends,” said Professor Dunbar, who discussed the science of falling of love at The Times Cheltenham Science Festival last night.
The brain regions affected by “rose-tinted spectacle syndrome” are the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the orbitofrontal cortex. These are important in theory of mind, or the ability to see the world from someone else’s perspective, and in rational thought and reasoning.
“In a relationship you are in a trade-off between caution and just going for it,” Professor Dunbar said. “There is a view that emotion exists to get you off the fence. A purely rational organism would sit on the fence all the time to avoid being hurt. But if you don’t engage, you won’t form relationships. If the prefrontal cortex is shut down, that protective and cautious element goes.”
The effect is seen in both men and women. However, women appear to be the driving force in keeping relationships going.
Earlier this year, a study of mobile phone records by Professor Dunbar showed that men call their romantic partners more than any other person in the first seven years of a relationship. But after seven years, their focus shifts to other friends.
Women, by contrast, continue to phone their partners more than anyone else for the first 14 years of a relationship. Only then do they tend to shift their attention to friends. Professor Dunbar, whose book The Science of Love and Betrayal was published this year, rejected the idea that falling in love was merely a cultural phenomenon.
“If you look at poetry from all over the world, and at poems going back 5,000 years, you see the same thing — people describing falling in love,” he said.
“It doesn’t mean everyone experiences it. It is just that it is widespread and it long
predates Mills and Boon.”
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