Image Behavior Love Scrambles Our Brains WebHeart beats faster, knees go weak, brain becomes completely useless. Love is blind, the saying goes, and thanks to a world-first Australian study, we are now a step closer to understanding why.  For many years, science wasn’t clear on exactly why our brains go to mush when we’re falling in love, but this new study might just have some answers.

In January (2024), researchers from the ANU, University of Canberra and University of South Australia have measured how a part of the brain is responsible for putting our loved one on a pedestal in that first flush of romance. In the world’s first study investigating the link between the human brain’s behavioural activation system (BAS) and romantic love, researchers surveyed 1556 young adults who identified as being “in love.”

The survey questions focused on the emotional reaction to their partner, their behaviour around them, and the focus they placed on their loved one above all else. It turns out that when we are in love, our brain reacts differently. It makes the object of our affections the centre of our lives. ANU lead researcher and PhD student Adam Bode says the study – recently published in the journal Behavioural Sciences – sheds light on the mechanisms that cause romantic love.

University of Canberra academic and UniSA Adjunct Associate Professor, Dr Phil Kavanagh, says the study shows that romantic love is linked to changes in behaviour as well as emotion. Have you fallen in love? Remember the beginning when everything is new and exciting, and you can’t keep your hands off each other. It’s thrilling, nerve-wracking… and a really bad time to be making important financial or career decisions.

The scientists wanted to investigate whether the behavioral activation system (BAS) – the mechanism within thelove brain image mind and body that promotes behaviors that might lead to a reward – plays a role in romantic love. Research has linked the BAS to various aspects of human behavior, as well as psychiatric conditions like bipolar disorder,  but this is the first time it’s been studied in this context.

The results confirmed what many people will have experienced themselves when they’ve fallen in love – that the brain operates differently, with thoughts and actions (albeit temporarily) revolving around the new romantic partner. “The BAS is evolutionarily old,” the authors explain in their paper, “and romantic love made use of this system in a novel way.” As to what drives these changes in behavior, Dr Kavanagh suggests that a rush of hormones may be to blame. 

Essentially, love activates pathways in the brain associated with positive feelings.Armed with these new findings, Bode and Kavanah are already turning their attention to the next phase of their research. They’re planning a study looking at the different approaches to love in men and women, as well as a global survey to categorize people who experience romantic love into four different types.

There’s still a lot we can’t explain about love. You could easily argue it belongs up there with some of the greatest mysteries of the universe. But with research like this, we can move one step closer to understanding how it works. Basically, the researchers have measured how a part of the brain is responsible for putting our loved one on a pedestal in that first flush of romance.

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