Sunday, February 20, 2011

Is Romantic Love a Western, Heterosexual Construct?


-Jenny Holzer, Truisms

Does romantic love manipulate women into providing free domestic labor and sexual favors for men? Some feminist views of romantic love [and the institution of marriage] portray it as controlling and oppressive (Burns, 2000):
‘STOP HUMAN SACRIFICE. END MARRIAGE NOW.’ ‘IT STARTS WHEN YOU SINK IN HIS ARMS AND ENDS WITH YOUR ARMS IN HIS SINK.’ From a feminist perspective, romantic love was, and is, seen to obscure or disguise gender inequality and women’s oppression in intimate heterosexual relationships.
But some in the men's movement see romantic love as dangerous for men as well as women, because it prevents men from being vulnerable (Bloodwood, 2003):
...historically, romantic love has been a highly gendered but workable deal in which men provide women with social status and material goods while women provide men with sex/affective labour. Thus romantic relationships not only reinforce women’s second class status but also reinforce men’s lack of sex/affective autonomy, so that romantic love is equally dangerous for women and for men.
Furthermore, romantic love is often portrayed as a relatively recent construct that is specific to Western societies. A cross-cultural study by Jankowiak and Fischer (1992) claimed that:
The anthropological study of romantic (or passionate) love is virtually nonexistent due to the widespread belief that romantic love is unique to Euro-American culture. This belief is by no means confined to anthropology. The historian Philippe Aries (1962), for example, argues that affection was of secondary importance to more utilitarian ambitions throughout much of European history.
However, their own analysis of the ethnographic literature found that romantic love (however ill-defined) could be observed in 147 out of 166 societies, including 77% in Sub-Saharan Africa and 94% in East Eurasia (Jankowiak & Fischer, 1992). Likewise, evolutionary anthropologist Helen Fisher and colleagues suggest that romantic love evolved as one of three motivational brain systems for mating, reproduction, and parenting (Fisher et al., 2002).

The biological concept that romantic love (or attraction) is an emotional/motivational system in the human brain has prompted some neuroimaging investigators to search for its elusive neural correlates. How do you measure long-term intense romantic love in an fMRI experiment? Researchers have adopted the practical (yet flawed) strategy of examining the hemodynamic response to viewing pictures of a partner with whom participants were "madly in love".

Previous studies on the "neural correlates of romantic love" have focused on recently attached heterosexuals from the UK (Bartels & Zeki, 2000) or US (Aron et al., 2005). One of the main findings from these studies is that the expected dopamine/reward areas [including ventral tegmental area (VTA), substantia nigra (SN), and caudate nucleus] showed greater activation when looking at the pictures of the partner, compared to pictures of a close friend or neutral acquaintance. And in the previous post on Posterior Hippocampus and Sexual Frequency, we saw a similar response in a specifically recruited group of participants still "madly in love" after 21 years of marriage (Acevedo et al., 2011).

So are the "neural correlates of romantic love" the same in non-Western, non-heterosexual participants? Two recent papers attempted to spread the love to include diverse "others" (Xu et al., 2011; Zeki & Romaya, 2010). Is the simple act of asking if the Chinese and teh gays are "just like us" when it comes to love offensive? I'll let you be the judge.

Although the original study of Bartels and Zeki (2000) recruited an ethnically and culturally diverse group of subjects, all were heterosexual. Zeki and Romaya (2010) wanted to extend this work to include romantically involved gay participants. This time, they included 12 females (6 in straight and 6 in lesbian relationships) and 12 males (6 in straight and 6 in gay relationships) in their fMRI experiment. I won't belabor the methods [and the critiques thereof] here, but will refer the reader to Posterior Hippocampus and Sexual Frequency.1

Fig. 2 (Zeki & Romaya, 2010). Illustration of the t statistic for the contrast Loved > Neutral showing selected activations superimposed over averaged anatomical sections. Random effects analysis with 24 subjects. Background threshold p uncorrected < 0.001. (A) Medial sagittal plane (x = 0) showing activations in the tegmentum [VTA], hypothalamus and [cerebellar] vermis. (B) Sagittal plane x = −12 (LH) showing activation in the caudate head, anterior cingulate and parietal cortex. (C) Horizontal plane z = −30; right cerebellum. (D) Horizontal plane z = −9; mid insula, left hemisphere.

As for differences between the groups, there were none: no main or interactive effects of gender or sexual orientation. The results were the same for gay and straight, male and female participants [but remember that the numbers were very low, n=6 for each of the four cells]. So this particular [underpowered] study suggests that "the romantic love brain circuit" (i.e., familiarity, attention, memory, reward, etc. activity associated with looking at your partner's face) is not restricted to heterosexuals. Did they really expect anything different? Actually not, Zeki and Romaya predicted a null effect.

However, the authors themselves note the difficulties inherent in their entire endeavor:
We begin by emphasizing that any study of so complex and overpowering a sentiment as love is fraught with difficulties. Chief among these is that the sentiment itself involves many components – erotic, emotional, and cognitive – that are almost impossible to isolate from the overall sentiment of love. ... While acknowledging this difficulty, we tried as best we could to circumvent it, by applying a uniform criterion – that of a loved face – for studying the brain's love system. Another problem is the difficulty of controlling the mental processes that occur when subjects view their lovers' faces. The only way to address this is through the statistical methods we have used to analyze our results. We have employed a random effects analysis using the summary statistic approach to control for the between-subject variation in our sample.

Finally, to complete our neurological query on the universal nature of romantic love, how about the cross-cultural findings? What were the results in 18 heterosexual Han Chinese students recruited from Beijing Normal College (Xu et al., 2011)? Why, the same VTA and caudate regions were activated by the beloved!
The findings of this study of early stage intense romantic love in China suggest that (a) highly similar patterns of reward system activation in response to one's beloved are found in Chinese as in the United States...
There were however some differences, namely in the orbitofrontal cortex:
Thus, it is possible that Chinese participants may engage orbitofrontal systems and afferents, weigh the relationship more carefully, and take negative aspects into account more readily than Western participants (orbitofrontal cortex activation was not found in US and UK samples)...
What does all this mean for the question posed in title of this post? We can't answer it, at least as far as the brain is concerned. We can't go back in time and scan people from the past, obviously. How about recruiting individuals who live in the 11.5% of societies where romantic love was not reported? Good luck with that.

I'll leave you with a novel control experiment. None of the studies have compared gazing at the partner's face to a condition I'll call "the most desired celebrity." Have the participants in this devious new study view a picture of who they consider the single hottest actor, and see how well the beloved holds up against Brad or Angelina [for instance]. Dare you tell your partner the outcome of this little experiment?


1 There were some minor differences in stimulus presentation parameters between Zeki's and Aron's groups, but we'll skip those for now.


Acevedo BP, Aron A, Fisher HE, & Brown LL (2011). Neural correlates of long-term intense romantic love. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. Jan 5. [Epub ahead of print].

Aron A, Fisher H, Mashek DJ, Strong G, Li H, Brown LL. (2005). Reward, motivation, and emotion systems associated with early-stage intense romantic love. J Neurophysiol. 94:327-37.

Bartels A, Zeki S. (2000). The neural basis of romantic love. Neuroreport 11:3829-34.

Burns A (2000). IV. Looking for Love in Intimate Heterosexual Relationships. Feminism & Psychology 10:481-485. PDF

Bloodwood D (2003). The Dangers of Romantic Love. Unpublished Manuscript. PDF

Fisher HE, Aron A, Mashek D, Li H, Brown LL. (2002). Defining the brain systems of lust, romantic attraction, and attachment. Arch Sex Behav. 31:413-9.

Jankowiak WR, Fischer EF (1992). A Cross-Cultural Perspective on Romantic Love. Ethnology 31:149-155.

Xu, X., Aron, A., Brown, L., Cao, G., Feng, T., & Weng, X. (2011). Reward and motivation systems: A brain mapping study of early-stage intense romantic love in Chinese participants. Human Brain Mapping, 32 (2), 249-257 DOI: 10.1002/hbm.21017

Zeki, S., & Romaya, J. (2010). The Brain Reaction to Viewing Faces of Opposite- and Same-Sex Romantic Partners. PLoS ONE, 5 (12) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0015802

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