There is a good first person piece in the latest edition of US Esquire magazine. In Do I Love My Wife? An Investigative Report , writer A.J. Jacobs has his brain scanned by a £2 million MRI machine. The aim: to assess his feelings for his wife using the latest findings, techniques and technologies that science (in the form of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York) has to offer.
As the writer explains: “How do I love thee? I love thee with serotonin produced by my raphe Nuclei. I love thee with testosterone receptors deep in my hypothalamus. I love thee with dopamine that floods my primitive lizard brain.
“Actually, I hope I love my wife with all my major brain parts – but who knows? The truth is, I don’t know how I love her. That’s the whole point of today’s experiment.”
The scientists who carry out the experiment believe that love is created by three distinct brain systems: one for sex, one for romance and one for attachment. Each system is affiliated to a different part of the brain. The MRI scanner monitors the activity within each system, by capturing moving images of blood flow in Jacobs’ brain as he looks at his favourite pictures of his wife and thinks about her.
To add a little more spice, the scientists take their experiment one step further and see how his feelings for his wife compare to his feelings for Angelina Jolie. When I read this, I thought that his wife sounded like one brave lady.
The results, when they come back, are interesting.
He has a high level of attachment to his wife, but his result for romance is not what he expected. The scientist tells him: “Your brain is not just seeing pure reward, the way it is in the beginning of a relationship. Your brain is seeing some difficulties.”
As for sex: he has been married to his wife Julie for nine years and has three children, which should in theory mean that the writer’s testosterone levels are relatively low. According to the scan, his libido is “surprisingly strong”.
“Even when I was in the romance phase of the test, the sex regions of the brain lit up. This is beginning to look like quite a message for women, Brown [the scientist] writes me. Men always tell us that sex is important to them, that they are always thinking about it, it’s always a factor when looking at women, but these data are making it really sink into my thick skull and take notice.”
And what about Angelina Jolie? Again, the results were unexpected. The scan found that Jacobs found his wife and the Hollywood actress to be equally attractive. Overall, however, his wife beat Angelina Jolie hands down.
The conclusion was rather charming:
“”You do love your wife,” says Brown. “It’s just in a more complicated way. The way most people love their long-term spouses.”
“I love her, but not with the junkie’s high. “But don’t give up on that,” says Fisher. “I think those children are going to grow up and you’re going to have the experience of being madly in love.””
I’m not a therapist, but I do spend my days working with couples in conflict. As a family lawyer, I meet many long-term spouses who feel, for whatever reason, that they have fallen out of love – or that their spouses have fallen out of love with them.
Over the years I have learned that more often than not, the ultimate reason for the breakdown of a relationship is a symptom of that breakdown, rather than a cause. So an adulterous affair that brings about a divorce may not be the initial cause of that divorce: the marriage may, to all intents and purposes, have broken down beforehand.
At some stage, however, these people were happy together. They must have been in love and must have been sexually attracted to each other. Can such feelings be recaptured? AJ Jacobs’ MRI “love scan” results and the scientists’ conclusions suggest that it can. Long-term love is “more complicated” – but it is still deep and abiding.
Even as a hardened divorce lawyer , I advocate holding a marriage together whenever possible – assuming the co-operation and willingness of both parties. To me, the writer’s somewhat unexpected reaction to Angelina Jolie merely serves to demonstrate that the grass elsewhere is not always as green as it may seem.