Sometimes When You’re In Love, You’re Not

Lessons in love from the MRI-based carnival art of Brent Hoff

Are you in love or are you in lust? Neuroscience would say the difference is in whether or not your brain is producing oxytocin, the bonding chemical that scientists associate with monogamous relationships. To oversimplify, love includes the production of oxytocin and dopamine in the brain, while lust elicits simply the production of dopamine.

Brent Hoff. Image via Twitter

But to artist Brent Hoff, who is interested in how our myriad emotions manifest themselves in our brains, the truth about our brains in love is so much more complex. “I think we have the tendency to reduce love to oxytocin,” he cautions. “’Love’ is just a word and so is ‘lust.’ They probably blend together to more of a recipe in certain situations and in relationships that people have.”

My first introduction to Hoff’s work was at the Borscht Film Festival in Miami, where he was conducting a lust competition. Along with Stanford scientists, Hoff designed an interactive experience he calls “The Emotional Arcade,” a “step-right-up” county-fair style game in which volunteers from the audience compete to feel an emotion the hardest, choosing between lust, rage, chill, and bliss. An EEG headset monitors brain activity, and the more you are feeling that emotion the more air shoots through a tube and into a balloon. The first one to pop their balloon wins. It’s a shooting contest with your feelings as the gun.

One observation Hoff’s made: “In lust competitions, guys start fast but have a hard time finishing, especially if people are watching. Girls start slower, but generally dominate.”

Hoff has also collaborated with Stanford neuroscientist Melina Uncapher to design “The Love Competition,” in which seven men and women ranging in ages from 10 to 75 competed to love the hardest. Each one was asked to climb into an MRI machine and spend 15 minutes thinking about a person or memory they hoped would produce the neurochemicals we associate with love.

The Emotional Arcade. Image via Brent Hoff

“MRIs are measuring blood flow to regions of the brain,” explains Hoff. “So when you put someone in the MRI and asked them to love, what you see is a sudden increase in blood flow to the nucleus accumbens, where oxytocin is produced, and to the [substantia nigra] where dopamine is produced.”

Hoff is quick to point out that “this is all pretty new.” Because much of the research into the neural underpinnings of love, lust, and relationships remains nascent, certain conclusions that have been drawn have the potential for over-representing specific case studies. And some of the most famous studies focus on animals, not humans.


Hoff also observes that the science of these feelings often contradicts the way these emotions feel to us. “Obviously there is a different feeling of ‘I love my mom’ or ‘I love this person, my boyfriend or girlfriend,” explains Hoff. “They have different energies but they don’t look that different in the brain.” Another tricky thing to explain is that, in the brain, rage and lust can often look the same. “It’s the same neurochemicals, in the same part of the brain, in the same circuitry. It’s almost indistinguishable,” says Hoff. “What the fuck?”

Prairie voles mate for life, and are a popular subject for neuroscientists exploring human relationships.Image via Todd Ahern / Emory University

Only Wanna Be With You

Despite the limits of the blunt instruments we have to try to understand and track emotions, Hoff has observed that participants in his art projects often take something significant away from the emotional intelligence they do gain. To the shock of many, the neurochemicals in their brain don’t match what they think they’re feeling. Sometimes that’s a guy on stage in Amsterdam in a lust competition realizing he has the hots for a girl he just met more than for his girlfriend. But sometimes it’s more therapeutic.

“Pete, who was in the Love Competition, he went in believing he was desperately still in love with his ex-girlfriend,” says Hoff. The MRI machines’ results said otherwise, and so this guy who had quit his job and moved across the country “came out with his arms raised above his head being like I’m not in love with her. He no longer felt that grieving process.”

Hoff recalls a similar instance in which a woman in a rage competition experienced the realization she wasn’t as angry at her ex anymore. “Her balloon wasn’t doing anything. She took off her headset and looked at me and said, ‘I’m not mad at him.’”

“After seeing that over and over again,” says Hoff, “it makes you question your own feelings. Are these strong feelings of hurt or lust, how you really feel?”

MRI images taken during The Love Experiment. Photos via Brent Hoff


But how you think you feel does really affect what your body is feeling. “We get in these emotional patterns, and they are patterns, that generate neurochemicals. If you think about an ex, you are producing stress hormones,” he says. “I’m super interested in epigenetics, in how your environment changes your biology.”

Epigenetics—the effect of factors other than our DNA on our genes—and not just drugs, appears to underlie the way our brains love. Consider, for example, a 2013 study of prairie voles. The animal is of interest to researchers studying human mating because it is known for coupling up in life-long pair bonds, for sharing parental roles, and egalitarian nest building. When researchers took otherwise promiscuous voles—voles that mostly lived in a “constant orgy,” says Hoff—and dosed them with oxytocin and vasopressin (another chemical strongly associated with long-term bonding), the voles began to partner up, adopting the behavior of their monogamous cousins. The effect, however, was only observed after the voles had spent six hours cohabitating with other voles. That is to say, the drugs alone did not induce the partner preference—the time the voles spent around each other was crucial.

The substantia nigra is involved in producing dopamine, which is associated with feelings of love and lust.

“The drug by itself won’t do all these molecular changes—you need the context: It’s the drug plus the six hours of cohabitation,” Mohamed Kabbaj, a neuroscientist at Florida State University in Tallahassee, told Nature. This led Kabbaj and his team to conclude that the genes needed to produce receptors for oxytocin and vasopressin were activated only after animals had spent time together, pointing to an epigenetic system underlying relationship bonds.

There’s clearly an interplay between narrative and brain chemicals: otherwise, if these feelings were really just a cocktail of oxytocin, dopamine, serotonin, and vasopressin, wouldn’t we be able to manufacture love or lust artificially? That’s a question Hoff put to some of the neuroscientists he was working with: “Why isn’t there a love drug? Why don’t you just say your vows, cut your cake, and start your prescription?”

Lately, philosophers at Oxford and elsewhere have argued for the benefits of a 21st-century love potion, and already, you can buy oxytocin on Amazon as a nasal spray. But as the neuroscientists explained to Hoff, “it doesn’t do anything for you because it’s out of your bloodstream in two minutes. Those chemicals need a memory to bond to.”


For now, the love drugs mean little without a good love story.