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What Happens to Your Brain When You Fall in Love?

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Falling in love is one of the best feelings in the world—and humans might not be the only creatures who do it. Pair bonding, the two-by-two partnering of creatures, has been seen across the animal kingdom. Whether or not a nesting pair of robins can be said to truly love each other, we're still awfully interested in why animals might pair off. The tools available to biologists have advanced immensely in the last few decades, and some are using that technology to decipher physiology involved in both pair bonding and love.

Getting In-Vole-ved

To unravel the mysteries behind pair bonding, researchers studied not robins, but voles. Prairie voles and montane voles are closely related rodents with a stark difference in mating behavior: prairie voles form lifelong pair bonds after mating, while montane voles are promiscuous. The work of Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), and colleagues showed that the different mating behaviors can be linked to the hormones oxytocin and vasopressin. Oxytocin stimulates childbirth and lactation, while vasopressin regulates the kidneys and constricts blood vessels. More recent research has implicated the two hormones in many different social behaviors, from working cooperatively to selecting mates to inferring the emotions of others. Oxytocin in particular has calming effects and seems to help build trust between people.

The crucial physiological difference between these two species of vole is in the distribution of oxytocin and vasopressin receptors in the voles' brains. Prairie voles have a higher density of both types of receptors in the amygdala, the area of the brain involved in emotion-related memory formation, and in various parts of the dopamine reward system. Both hormones are released when prairie voles mate, prompting pair bonds to form. When the hormone release is blocked, prairie voles become promiscuous. Perhaps more tellingly, when montane voles are genetically modified to have prairie vole-like distributions of vasopressin receptors, they become monogamous.

Dopamine is an important part of the picture as well. The release of dopamine gives a pleasurable feeling, and is used in the brain to reward behaviors such as procreating or eating a hearty meal. Voles that are made more sensitive to dopamine can develop partner preferences without mating—a friendly encounter will do. Voles whose dopamine receptors are blocked do not form partner preferences at all. Many of the dopamine receptors and pathways responsible for pair bonding in voles are also involved in cocaine addiction in rodents. This suggests a possible explanation for the addictive feeling of love.

This is your brain on Love

In humans, Donatella Marazziti, Professor of Psychiatry and Director of the laboratory of Psychopharmacology at the University of Pisa, has found that early stages of romance are linked with diminished levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin and of a serotonin receptor. These two molecules are also depleted in obsessive-compulsive disorder. Since both conditions (to different extents) also give rise to feelings of anxiety and obtrusive thinking, it is tempting to think of early love as a mild, temporary form of obsessive behavior. Early romance is also characterized by higher levels of several different molecules related to stress response. Twelve to 18 months into a relationship, both serotonin and the stress molecules are restored to normal levels.

Researchers like Helen Fisher of the Department of Anthropology at Rutgers University and Semir Zeki of UCL in London have done functional MRI studies to identify the regions of the brain that are activated or deactivated by romantic love. They've found that people in romantic love show increased activity in a number of different regions of the brain that are involved in the dopamine reward system. Parental love activates most of the same regions but not the hypothalamus, suggesting that the hypothalamus may be responsible for the sexual component of romantic love.

Areas that show reduced activity include the amygdala and the frontal and prefrontal cortecies. The amygdala is associated with fear and aversive learning, or learning from one's mistakes. The frontal and prefrontal cortecies are associated with the executive functions of analysis and judgment, delayed gratification, and predicting the outcomes of events. We can speculate that diminished activity in these regions explains why lovestruck persons do not seem to have full grasp of these particular functions. Fisher summarizes some of her findings magnificently in her 2008 TED talk.

The physiology of love is not totally understood, and research is ongoing. Researchers have begun to explain the pair bonding of animals such as voles, and have identified patterns of hormones and brain activity that show up among people in romantic relationships. What physiology tells us about love is what we knew all along—that it is a stressful matter bordering on an addiction or an obsessive disorder, that it muddles one's judgment and leads one to act rashly, and that as it grows, these disturbances fade and give way to calm and joy.

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Big Questions
Why Do Cats Freak Out After Pooping?
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Cats often exhibit some very peculiar behavior, from getting into deadly combat situations with their own tail to pouncing on unsuspecting humans. Among their most curious habits: running from their litter box like a greyhound after moving their bowels. Are they running from their own fecal matter? Has waste elimination prompted a sense of euphoria?

Experts—if anyone is said to qualify as an expert in post-poop moods—aren’t exactly sure, but they’ve presented a number of entertaining theories. From a biological standpoint, some animal behaviorists suspect that a cat bolting after a deposit might stem from fears that a predator could track them based on the smell of their waste. But researchers are quick to note that they haven’t observed cats run from their BMs in the wild.

Biology also has a little bit to do with another theory, which postulates that cats used to getting their rear ends licked by their mother after defecating as kittens are showing off their independence by sprinting away, their butts having taken on self-cleaning properties in adulthood.

Not convinced? You might find another idea more plausible: Both humans and cats have a vagus nerve running from their brain stem. In both species, the nerve can be stimulated by defecation, leading to a pleasurable sensation and what some have labeled “poo-phoria,” or post-poop elation. In running, the cat may simply be working off excess energy brought on by stimulation of the nerve.

Less interesting is the notion that notoriously hygienic cats may simply want to shake off excess litter or fecal matter by running a 100-meter dash, or that a digestive problem has led to some discomfort they’re attempting to flee from. The fact is, so little research has been done in the field of pooping cat mania that there’s no universally accepted answer. Like so much of what makes cats tick, a definitive motivation will have to remain a mystery.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
Why Do Baseball Managers Wear Uniforms?
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Basketball and hockey coaches wear business suits on the sidelines. Football coaches wear team-branded shirts and jackets and often ill-fitting pleated khakis. Why are baseball managers the only guys who wear the same outfit as their players?

According to John Thorn, the official historian of Major League Baseball since 2011, it goes back to the earliest days of the game. Back then, the person known as the manager was the business manager: the guy who kept the books in order and the road trips on schedule. Meanwhile, the guy we call the manager today, the one who arranges the roster and decides when to pull a pitcher, was known as the captain. In addition to managing the team on the field, he was usually also on the team as a player. For many years, the “manager” wore a player’s uniform simply because he was a player. There were also a few captains who didn’t play for the team and stuck to making decisions in the dugout, and they usually wore suits.

With the passing of time, it became less common for the captain to play, and on most teams they took on strictly managerial roles. Instead of suits proliferating throughout America’s dugouts, though, non-playing captains largely hung on to the tradition of wearing a player's uniform. By the early to mid 20th century, wearing the uniform was the norm for managers, with a few notable exceptions. The Philadelphia Athletics’s Connie Mack and the Brooklyn Dodgers’s Burt Shotton continued to wear suits and ties to games long after it fell out of favor (though Shotton sometimes liked to layer a team jacket on top of his street clothes). Once those two retired, it’s been uniforms as far as the eye can see.

The adherence to the uniform among managers in the second half of the 20th century leads some people to think that MLB mandates it, but a look through the official major league rules [PDF] doesn’t turn up much on a manager’s dress. Rule 1.11(a) (1) says that “All players on a team shall wear uniforms identical in color, trim and style, and all players’ uniforms shall include minimal six-inch numbers on their backs" and rule 2.00 states that a coach is a "team member in uniform appointed by the manager to perform such duties as the manager may designate, such as but not limited to acting as base coach."

While Rule 2.00 gives a rundown of the manager’s role and some rules that apply to them, it doesn’t specify that they’re uniformed. Further down, Rule 3.15 says that "No person shall be allowed on the playing field during a game except players and coaches in uniform, managers, news photographers authorized by the home team, umpires, officers of the law in uniform and watchmen or other employees of the home club." Again, nothing about the managers being uniformed.

All that said, Rule 2.00 defines the bench or dugout as “the seating facilities reserved for players, substitutes and other team members in uniform when they are not actively engaged on the playing field," and makes no exceptions for managers or anyone else. While the managers’ duds are never addressed anywhere else, this definition does seem to necessitate, in a roundabout way, that managers wear a uniform—at least if they want to have access to the dugout. And, really, where else would they sit?

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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