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To an UMSL psychologist, love is just a state of mind

UMSL neuroscience major Katrina Lynn injects a gel into a brainwave-reading cap worn by subject Kohei Kikuchi in January 2017.
Eli Chen | St. Louis Public Radio
UMSL neuroscience major Katrina Lynn injects a gel into a brainwave-reading cap that research subject Kohei Kikuchi wears.

In the late 1990s, before Sandra Langeslag began attending college, she was dumped. Then a few months later, she fell in love again.

“I was very curious. I had these two experiences that were so opposite,” she said. “Why did I feel the way that I feel?"

She was about to begin her studies as a psychology major. Eventually, her interest in the subject of love led her to search for papers to explain the connection between the brain and the experience of falling in love. As it turns out, there weren’t many.

As she continued to do psychology research, her studies on love were a constant side project. Now, she runs a laboratory at the University of Missouri-St. Louis that’s devoted to finding out how love works in the brain.

Scientists have trouble agreeing on a definition for love. Langeslag believes that love is not an emotion, but a powerful motivator, such as hunger or thirst.

“It makes people feel good. It can make people feel nervous. It can make them jealous or it can make them sad if things don’t go right,” Langeslag said. “They can change the way they dress.  It can change the job they have, the country they live in or the religion they have.”

Langeslag is working on an experiment where she’s analyzing the brainwaves of those who have fallen in love within the last year. This involves getting recently enamored people into her lab to run some test on them. One such person is Kohei Kikuchi, a young man who recently began dating his partner. The test started with student researcher Katrina Lynn giving Kikuchi a form to fill out.

It’s full of rather intimate questions, asking him how being in love affects his appetite, concentration, and if it’s giving him “shaky knees.” English isn’t Kikuchi’s first language, so Lynn had to explain a few terms.

“What’s tender?” Kikuchi asked Lynn.

“Um, tender … it’s like, you like someone, you feel comfortable with them,” she said.

In Langeslag's current experiment, the subjects are required to answer a questionnair about how they feel about their beloved.
Credit Eli Chen | St. Louis Public Radio
In Langeslag's current experiment, the subjects must answer questions about how they feel about their beloved.

Once Kikuchi finished the questionnaire, Lynn strapped a red EEG cap on his head and stuck wired sensors to his face. Then, she injected a cold gel into the electrodes that covered the cap. Once the EEG cap became operational, it showed Lynn what Kikuchi’s brainwaves looked like as he performed a strange task. On a screen in front of him, he stared at a rapid slideshow of closely-cropped faces that included his partner.  

“We measure brain waves of a group of people who tell us they are in love and then we look at the average of the whole group and we can say, 'Oh, if people are in love, this is what the brain does,'” Langeslag said.

But she emphasized that her research does not “diagnose” from someone’s brain waves that they are in love.

Langeslag is especially interested in one type of brain wave, called the Late Positive Potential. The brain wave becomes more active when a person sees something that holds a lot of emotional meaning. In her study, she wants to know if that brain wave produces a stronger reading when the subject sees the person they love, compared to the faces of friends and strangers.

Most of Langeslag’s research is focused on how love can influence the brain. In the past, she’s shown that focusing on negative thoughts about someone can help a person overcome heartbreak. Thinking about someone’s positive qualities, meanwhile, can help a person feel more love towards their partner. Langeslag often refers to this as “regulating” one’s feelings of love.

“Maybe someone who is happily married develops a crush on someone they do not want to have a crush on,” she said. “They might want to down-regulate their love feelings towards that person.”

Her research, however, has not looked into how long those feelings of love remain changed. She imagines it would have to be a regular thought exercise.  

Other studies from her laboratory have also shown that love can help cognition, meaning that it can improve a person’s memory and ability to pay attention.

“If your beloved is a fan of Brad Pitt, even if you don’t care about him that much, now when you see a movie poster with his name on it, it’s now going to attract your attention because it has to do with your beloved,” she said.

One of her next steps, though, is to see how love can hurt cognition, because falling in love can be a major distraction and make a person less productive in areas where they need to be.

Langeslag’s work is considered controversial in her field, partly because she doesn’t consider relationships a necessary part of the research.

“A lot of love happens outside of relationships, like people are in love with someone they’re not in a relationship with, people are even in love with people they’ve never interacted with,” she said. “So I think 

Sandra Langeslag is a psychology professor at UMSL who studies how love works in the brain.
Credit August Jennewein | University of Missouri-St. Louis
Sandra Langeslag is a psychology professor at UMSL who studies how love works in the brain.

there’s more to love than relationships.”

At conferences, other researchers, especially those who study love in social situations, will disagree with her findings. Or they will tell her that her line of research is not worth studying because the findings sometimes seem rather obvious.

But she argues that her curiosity-driven research is fundamental to understanding how the brain works. That type of research is needed to help develop applications and solutions for issues, such as disease treatment and mental health.

There are also people who tell her that love is something that shouldn’t be studied because it would ruin the experience of falling and being in love. After more than a decade of studying it, she has never felt that way.

“Sometimes people say, 'No, we should not study [love] because it would waste the experience.' I don’t think this is true,” she said. “For me personally, I can recognize that things [from my research] are happening, but I mean, I can still fall in love and be in love and I can still have that feeling, even though I’m getting a better understanding of it.”

Follow Eli on Twitter: @StoriesByEli

Eli is the science and environment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

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