Are men from Mars and women from Venus? As this ScienCentral News video reports, this Valentine's Day, brain scientists offer new evidence for that continuing debate.
This is Your Brain on Love
Do men and women react differently to being in love? If they do, it's all in their heads.
Helen Fisher, an anthropologist at Rutgers University, looked at what happens to the brain when people are in the early stages in love. She and her colleagues, neuroscientist Lucy Brown at Albert Einstein Medical College and psychologist Arthur Aron at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, analyzed the MRI brain scans of 17 love-struck volunteers. The researchers found that when the subjects looked at pictures their loved ones triggers the reward centers in the brain. (For more on this study, see Addicted to Love).
Fisher didn't set out to study the differences between love-struck male and female brains "We ended up with ten women who were madly in love and seven men who were madly in love," says Fisher. "So it began to occur to us, why don't we see if there are gender differences? And indeed there were."
Fisher found that the women in the study showed more activity in the caudate nucleus, a C-shaped region in the brain that is associated with memory, emotion, and attention, the septum, also called the "pleasure center," the posterior parietal cortex, which is involved in the production of mental images, and some other parts of the brain associated with memory recall. The men in the study showed more activity in the visual cortex and visual processing areas, including one area responsible for sexual arousal.
Fisher then thought about these results from an anthropological and Darwinian standpoint. "It seems to make a great deal of sense to me," she says. "For millions of years men had to size up a woman by looking at her . . . was she healthy, young and able to bear him healthy babies? And so it made perfect sense that regions associated with visual stimuli would become active in men. And certainly once a man began to see a woman who was a good reproductive bet, it would have been adaptive for him to become sexually aroused and begin the mating process."
That explains the male brain, but what about the female? "For millions of years women needed to size up a man to see if he would be a good parent, a good father and a good husband," says Fisher. "And for that, she had to remember what he promised yesterday—did he bring buffalo meat three weeks ago, did he help with her mother at the watering hole two months ago? Women had to size up a man by all of his past activities, and for that you need a good memory. Indeed, today, women still remember more of the details of a romantic relationship than men do."
Fisher speculates that the visual response in men may cause them to fall in "love at first sight" more easily than women. "There is not question about it that men fall in love faster than women do, and I do believe that it's because men are more visual," she says. "And indeed we know now that certain regions of the male brain become active with the integration of visual stimuli. So it all is working toward the hypothesis that indeed men would probably be more likely to fall in love at first sight more than women."
Next, Fisher, Aron, and Brown will do a follow-up MRI study of men and women who have recently been rejected, in order to understand the full range of brain systems associated with love.
This research was presented at the Society For Neuroscience, 2003, and was funded by the National Science Foundation.