Photo: Ã‰amonn via flickr
Clues about whether a new romance will grow into a long-term relationship can be found hidden in the way our brains respond when we think about a new partner, scientists have found.Researchers have found that they can spot the signs of a true romance in people embarking on a new relationship by looking at how much their brains light up when they think about their new partner.
The scientists detected distinctive patterns of electrical activity in the brains of volunteers who believed they had recently fallen in love, and found that they could use the scans to predict whether a couple would stay together.
The findings could end the uncertainty of courting by revealing whether a couple are likely to have a long relationship or whether their feelings will fizzle out.
The scans showed that even if someone believed they had fallen in love, the activity of their neurons could suggest whether their feelings were strong enough for them to be with the other person three years later.
Prof Arthur Aron, a social psychologist at Stony Brook University in Long Island, New York, said: “All of those involved in the study felt very intensely in love with their partner and this was reflected in their scans, but there were some subtle indicators that showed how stable those feeling were.
“If that strong feeling was combined with signs that they could regulate emotions, to see the partner positively and deal with conflict, then it seems to be really productive in staying with the person.” The psychologists, whose research was published in the journal Neuroscience Letters, found a number of key parts of the brain were involved.
Using magnetic resonance imaging, the scientists scanned 12 volunteers, seven of whom were women, who had fallen passionately in love and had been with their partner for about a year.
As they were scanned, each was shown a picture of their partner and asked to think of memories of them.
The participants were also asked to think about and look at pictures of an acquaintance with whom they had no romantic attachment.
Three years later, the researchers compared the scans with the outcome of each relationship. Half the relationships had lasted.
The scientists found that the scans of those who were still in relationships had heightened levels of activity, when thinking of their partner, in an area of the brain that produces emotional responses to visual beauty, known as the caudate tail.
These people also had lower levels of activity in the pleasure centres of the brain that relate to addiction and seeking rewards. The scientists say deactivation in this area has been linked to satiety and satisfaction.
Another part of the brain, known as the medial orbitofrontal cortex, was also less active, which the scientists say made those people less critical and judgmental about their partners.
Aron said the research could have a practical application in helping people having relationship problems.
He said: “The brain is so complex that we are still quite a way from being able to very precisely pick out these qualities, but it does allow us to get at what is really going on inside someone aside from what they tell us.
“We may eventually get to a point where we can recognise things that the person doesn’t recognise themselves and we can say that they are not as intensely attached to a person as they think they are.”
Prof Aron added: “This probably facilitates handling the conflicts that inevitably arise when you spend a lot of time with someone. It plays a big part in keeping people together and staying satisfied.”
A fourth area known to modulate mood and self-esteem was less active in those who stayed together, something the scientists think may be linked to people forming stable and intimate bonds.
The psychologists also found they could spot signs of how happy a couple who stayed together would be in the scans taken three years earlier.
Xiaomeng Xu, the lead author of the study at Brown University in Rhode Island, said: “Factors present early in the early stages of romantic love seem to play a major role in the development and longevity of the relationship.
“Our data provides preliminary evidence that neural responses in the early stages of romantic love can predict relationship stability and quality up to 40 months later.
“The brain regions involved suggest that reward functions may be predictive for relationship stability.”
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