You see a face across a crowded room, but is it love? Technology may now be able to tell.
Keen to prove your love for your partner? What’ll you do: cater for her book club night? Hand over the remote control? Install a little buzzer on the toilet that goes off when the seat’s left up?
Depending on her – and your – faith in science, one simple test may be enough, although it’s much less romantic than the toilet seat option.
Scientists at University College London believe they’ve found the parts of the brain linked to true love.
How the study was done
They did the test by performing a brain scan during which 17 men and women were shown pictures of someone they’d professed to be “head-over-heels in love with”.
In the second part of the test, the subjects were given magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Brain waves were measured while they were shown pictures of a friend who was the same sex as their partner.
The research was reported in the sober journal New Scientist, so it wasn’t revealed whether any of the subjects went, “Actually, I’m in love with your friend,” or even, “Hey, he still hasn’t returned our lawnmower.”
Two scans show different brain activity
What the researchers did find interesting is that the two scans showed brain activity in parts of the brain that are distinct from each other.
When the participants were shown pictures of their partners, there was activity in the medial insula, which is associated with so-called gut feelings, and the anterior cingulated, an area of the brain associated with euphoric emotion.
For many guys this may not seem surprising: we often feel very much in love when we have feelings of euphoria very deep down in the gut – roughly in the groin region. It shouldn’t necessarily be mistaken for true love.
But the scientists were taking the test seriously enough to back up the scans with a polygraph (Not something used to measure parrots, as one student wrote in a test), or lie-detector test, which monitors changes in the skin triggered by strong emotion.
Men and women react the same way
A BBC report on the test notes that there were no significant differences in the way men and women reacted to the pictures. So men who claim to not understand women may have one less thing to worry about: while sexologists say that as far as sex is concerned, women are like slow cookers and men like microwave ovens, in terms of how we feel love, we may be more similar than we thought.
The test’s not yet available commercially, which might be reason enough to breathe a sigh of relief. That way you can stick to having flowers delivered to her office once a year, not leaving your underwear on the floor and teaching her kid brother to drive.
Recognising names and faces
Another aspect of the brain that’s fascinated researchers is the way we recognise faces – in the early stages of a relationship, it’s especially useful not mistake your babe for her sister.
It also seems that the brain has a three-stage verification process when recognising names. The University College London researchers, who presented these findings at a conference reported on in the journal Nature Neuroscience, believe it may help treat people who lose their ability to recognise faces due to dementia.
One such condition is prosopagnosia or “face-blindness” where people can’t recognise family members and partners, and may even be unable to recognise themselves in the mirror.
Researchers found that the brain first assesses a face’s physical attributes, then decides whether the face is known or unknown. If the face is recognised, its name is matched to it.
The wonder of the brain's mechanics
Ponder for a moment the wonder of the brain’s mechanics: you spot your first-ever girlfriend in a coffee shop. You haven’t seen her in eight years and she’s changed her hair and lost the funny art-student glasses, but in a second you know it’s her.
In technical terms, the right fusiform gyrus (That’s a part of your brain) gives her face the once-over and compares it to your stored memories to check whether you know her. No little MicroSoft hourglass – it just happens.
The inferior occipital gyri is able to help identify your old flame even though her hair’s different and she’s now wearing some funky reading glasses.
The third area of the brain involved in the process is the anterior temporal cortex, which immediately recalls that she had a sky-blue bikini and a red VW Beetle, that her father’s name was Ron and that you first met her because you played pool with her brother Graham.
The brain’s kneejerk reaction is to put a name to a face it’s shown, so even when there’s a morphed face of say, Catherine Zeta Jones and Queen Elizabeth II, it still tries to identify both faces in the picture.
Nobody’s yet worked out what would happen if you combined the two tests: if you loved your partner, but had a crush on her sister and were then shown a combined image of the two.