Prose from Poetry Magazine

The Madness of the Gods

Studying poetry to understand the brain in love.

I study the brain in love. My colleagues and I have put forty-nine people who were madly in love into a brain scanner (fmri). Seventeen had just fallen happily in love; fifteen had just been rejected in love; seventeen were men and women in their fifties who maintained they were still “in love” with their spouse after an average of twenty-one years of marriage. All showed activity in a tiny factory near the base of the brain that pumps out dopamine—the neural liquor that gives you the energy, focus, craving, and motivation associated with intense romantic passion—what the ancient Greeks called “the madness of the gods.”

But before I launched these brain-scanning projects, I searched the academic literature for the constellation of psychological symptoms linked with romantic love. More exciting to me, I also read poetry from around the world. As other anthropologists have studied fossils, arrowheads, or pot shards to understand human thought, I studied poetry to understand the lover’s besotted brain. I wasn’t disappointed: everywhere poets have described the emotional fallout produced by the brain’s eruptions as one becomes engulfed with romantic fervor.

Take “special meaning”: As you fall in love, you begin to regard your beloved as special, unique, unlike any other. “Juliet is the sun,” Romeo exclaims. The Indian poet Kabir writes: “The lane of love is narrow—there is room for only one.” And in The Jade Goddess, the twelfth-century Chinese fable, Chang Po says to his beloved, “Since heaven and earth were created, you were made for me and I will not let you go.” Then the lover begins to dote on every tiny aspect of the beloved. Most can list what they do not like about their sweetheart. But they sweep these details aside to concentrate on what they adore. The car the beloved drives is different from every other car in the parking lot. The street this person lives on, the music he listens to, the books she reads: everything related to the beloved grips the lover’s attention. As the ninth-century Chinese poet Yuan Chen wrote:

I can not bear to put away
the bamboo sleeping mat:
that night I brought you home,
I watched you roll it out.

“Love is blynd al day,” says Chaucer, and as the passion grows, this brain bath of dopamine fills the lover with restless energy, euphoria when things are going well, mood swings into despair when shunned. “This whirlwind, this delirium of Eros,” Robert Lowell called it. Bodily responses accompany this mental storm. Ono No Komachi, a ninth-century female Japanese poet, wrote, “I lie awake, hot/the growing fires of passion/bursting, blazing in my heart.” These bodily insurrections—from butterflies in the stomach to sweaty palms, weak knees, and a pounding heart—are probably the result of norepinephrine, a chemical closely related to dopamine.

So begins a physical and mental addiction to another human being, an addiction often portrayed in verse. “O, I willingly stake all for you,” were Whitman’s words. And an anonymous eighth-century Japanese poet summed up this craving, “My longing has no time when it ceases.” But I think Plato best expressed what is happening in the lover’s brain. In The Symposium he writes that the God of Love “lives in a state of need.” Romantic love is a need, a want, a craving, a homeostatic imbalance, a drive that arises from primitive regions of the mammalian brain, giving us the energy, focus, and motivation to win a mating partner—life’s greatest prize.

In fact, I think romantic love is one of three different brain systems that evolved for reproduction. The sex drive urges us to seek a range of partners; romantic love motivates us to focus our mating energy on just one individual at a time; and feelings of attachment enable us to remain with this person at least long enough to raise a single child through infancy together. Each kind of love is associated with different primary brain chemicals and brain pathways; each evolved to spread our dna on toward eternity. But of these three basic reproductive drives, romantic love is the best described—perhaps because dopamine is linked with creativity. And as this chemical courses through the brain, it produces the sleeplessness, energy, and imaginative fire that drive the impassioned lover to compose.

“Mind is primarily a verb,” wrote philosopher John Dewey. The mind does things. And poets capture these workings of the brain with words, enabling me to touch, feel, and understand some of the complex emotions that the brain produces as we fall in love.

Originally Published: January 3rd, 2011

Helen Fisher is an anthropologist at Rutgers University. Her latest book is Why Him? Why Her? (Henry Holt, 2009).

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  1. January 6, 2011
     Deborah Jarrell

    I find this interesting to suggest that dopamine may be a factor of falling in love. Is it possible that too much dopamine may creat a stalker who does not wish to let you go?

  2. January 6, 2011
     Sean G

    if you believe that dopamine is the cause of all love, and you see that we are just mammals looking for mates, then you are completely lost and have never yourself found true love. Researching poets like we are some dopamine freaks is ridiculous. What you imply is that i can inject dopamine and thus fall in love. You are from a drug culture but you don't even know it, the scariest form of denial. And if dopamine equals love, then why do we fall in love with an individual and not a chemical. Take more ecstasy and bounce around the club, but don't drag poets into your chemical romance....later

  3. January 12, 2011
     Bulbul Islam

    A joy for ever !

  4. January 15, 2011
     Gary O.

    Well, there obviously is a physiological basis for our feelings of romantic love -- surely we knew that in advance. But I fail to see how the identification of this feeling with the secretion of dopamene explains anything. The problem with the author’s form of "research" is that it simply tells us what occupies a causal role that we already knew was occupied. As a first step to explaining the phenomenon, the identification is necessary, but hardly worth publicizing: none of the sayings of the poets are illuminated by the identification of the chemical implicated in our feelings. Incidentally, the Dewey quote is not relevant, as the author unwittingly displays. If the mind is a verb, then it doesn't do things -- it is the doing of things. But which side you take on this metaphysical question -- and perhaps anthropologists shouldn't presume to make a pronouncement here? – won’t have any bearing on the activities of those who seriously want to understand how brain processes give rise to our emotions.

  5. January 22, 2011
     John Shuck

    Love isn't always
    loving. If conditional
    it's suffocating.-JGS

    The only description of love that even comes close in my book is, of course, found in Shakespeare's sonnets, the famous 116th. Always remember, Love is not time's fool, or is it? As for dopamine, it just wants a willing partner and then a cigarette.

  6. January 30, 2011
     Ricardo Small

    Is sexual love euphoria similar to what religious zealots feel, when they focus on their version of a deity?

  7. January 31, 2011

    LOVE? I have been wrong so many times that the word 'love' has become more obscene than the four-letter word
    that supposedly is the action in its 'doing'!! Love is a word but its definition is so varied so elusive that one tends to believe it is merely an emotion, an arousal either by self in the thymus gland that vests it on the object
    you are looking at, a woman with a pair loaded tits that shoots your imagination
    to bits or a rotund arse that moves like a 25 jewelled swiss watch...whatever....

  8. May 29, 2011

    The idea of studying poetry in the same way that you might study fossils is interesting. Yet, is what you're describing love - or is it infatuation? (In other words, a diminished form of true love more akin to lust?)