Academic Medicine:
doi: 10.1097/ACM.0b013e3181575fa1
Medicine and the Arts

Commentary

Fusar-Poli, Paolo MD; Politi, Pierluigi MD, PhD

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Dr. Fusar-Poli is a psychiatrist and researcher at the Neuroimaging Section, Department of Psychological Medicine, Institute of Psychiatry, London, United Kingdom, and at the Department of Psychobehavioural Health Sciences, University of Pavia, Pavia, Italy.

Dr. Politi is associate professor of psychiatry, Department of Applied and Psychobehavioural Health Sciences, University of Pavia, Pavia, Italy.

In recent years, emotions and feelings, such as attachment, couple and parental bonding, and even love, have become the topic of extensive neuroscientific research in order to elucidate their biological underpinnings. Modern techniques, such as functional imaging resonance imaging (fMRI), allowed researchers to investigate “in vivo” different neurophysiological correlates of human love: mate choice,1 acute phase,2 grieving phase,3 reward and motivation systems,4 and maternal and romantic love.5 Despite the intriguing results and the promising potentialities of such methods, the news media have ignored a critical evaluation of what, exactly, the new technologies purport to explain and have often proclaimed that in a near future brain scans could be used to address the presence and the quality of human love. This claim stems from the fact that brain images have become in some cases surrogates for the “true nature” of love, rather than mathematical constructs exhibiting via computer theoretical representations of “love” that exist nowhere outside such technology. Such a neurorealistical approach reflects the uncritical way in which an fMRI investigation can be taken to validate and to capture a “visual proof” of complex feelings such love (we could provocatively term it as neuropornography). In fact, despite the enormous ontological and epistemological problems arising from these techniques, we are tempted to say: this little red dot in the posterior cingulate gyrus is the proof that the observed woman is in romantic love.

However, fMRI is by far not the only visual representation of maternal or romantic love. The allegorical painting Venus, Cupido, Time and Folly was probably commissioned to the artist Bronzino from the Tuscan Duke Cosimo de' Medici. Front and center in the painting are Cupid and Venus in a startling and incestuous embrace. The goddess of love and beauty, identified by the golden apple given to her by Paris and by her doves, has drawnCupid's arrow. At her feet, masks, perhaps the symbols of sensual nymph and satyr, seem to gaze up at the lovers. Folly, the laughing child, throws rose petals at them, heedless of the thorn piercing his left foot. Behind him Pleasure, fair of face, but foul of body, proffers a sweet honeycomb in one hand, concealing the sting in her tail with the other. But Pleasure's body, obscured to the erotic present, is that of a reptilian monster, and in her tail there is a sting. On the other side of the lovers is a dark figure, called Jealousy. The symbolic meaning of the central scene is thus revealed to be unchaste love, presided over by Folly and abetted by Pleasure, and its painful consequences. Oblivion, the figure on the upper left who is shown without physical capacity for remembering, attempts to draw a veil over all, but is prevented by Father Time.

The allegorical and symbolic meaning of Bronzino's painting is not directly given and requires a wide knowledge of the historical and cultural background of the artist; love, in all its complexity, requires creative interpretation. The promise exists that future reliable imaging research of complex human feelings may take some of the mystery out of love, provided its methodological and ontological limits are better acknowledged and discussed. Nowadays we believe that imaging data are purely evidence based, and that fMRI pictures are true demonstrations. However, neuroimaging only reproduces its own reductions in the brains it observes (i.e., the neurofunctional correlates of love). As Galileo did with the telescope, when we look to love through the scan, we need to close one eye and decide which aspects of the real phenomena “love” not to observe (i.e., Time, Pleasure, Oblivion, Jealousy, Folly). Unluckily, even when we have decided which aspect of love to observe (i.e., its neurofunctional correlates) and which not, we cannot simply rely on the methodological reductionism underlying fMRI and on a priori hypotheses. In fact, love and human beings are not immutable entities, as Plato may have thought, but reveal themselves in an ever-changing diversity to the attuned observer. Thus, our concept of love itself has been ontogenetically developed by allegories such as Bronzino's painting as well as by what is observed with a modern MRI scanner.

Although current imaging techniques can serve to further elucidate the neurophysiology of human love, a brain scan could never a priori be the unique criteria for the identification of such complex feeling, as suggested by the work of Wittgenstein, by the accounts of psychology of Aristotle, and by Heidegger's and Merleau-Ponty's phenomenological criticisms of cognitivism. They warn us of the risk of fully attributing one property of a whole incorrectly to one of its parts (mereological fallacy). Complex feelings such as maternal and romantic love are properties of human beings, not brains, and are real only at that level. The scan cannot replace the experience and the concept of the human love. Otherwise we are more and more lost in translation: what our eyes see is not what our heart gets.

Paolo Fusar-Poli, MD

Pierluigi Politi, MD, PhD

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References

1 Fisher H, Aron A, Brown L. Romantic love: an fMRI study of a neural mechanism for mate choice. J Comp Neurol. 2005;493:58–62.

2 Bartels A, Zeki S. The neural basis of romantic love. Neuroreport. 2000;11:3829–3834.

3 Najib A, Lorberbaum JP, Kose S, Bohning DE, George MS. Regional brain activity in women grieving a romantic relationship breakup. Am J Psychiatry. 2004;161:2245–2256.

4 Aron A, Fisher H, Mashek DJ, Strong G, Li H, Brown L. Reward, motivation, and emotion systems associated with early-stage intense romantic love. J Neurophysiol. 2005;94:327–337.

5 Bartels A, Zeki S. The neural correlates of maternal and romantic love. Neuroimage. 2004;21:1155–1166.

© 2007 Association of American Medical Colleges

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