Neural Love: The Quantum Dynamics of Life, Love, and Neuroscience

Family Gear Discussion

How to entangle, trammel up and snare
Your soul in mine, and labyrinth you there
Like the hid scent in an unbudded rose?
Aye, a sweet kiss — you see your mighty woes.
……– John Keats, “Lamia”

“Enzymes are the workhorses of life.”
……– Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology

In Keat’s poem the notion of entanglement is related to the allurement and capture of a sexual object that becomes so inextricably tangled in the web of desire and sensual (scent) snares that it must surrender to the power of this force that has like a spider trapped it in a skein of dark delights. And only in the very moment of her haptic rapture at the touch, the kiss, does she at last become conscious, her reasoning powers of mind and thought coming back to her, awakening her from this dark affective region of immersive and blind passion, allowing her – too late, to understand her engulfment and surrender to the allurements of Love.

So is there a physical basis for such processes? Keat’s being a Romantic poet was not concerned with the deeper neural or physical processes underlying this dark and erotic power of love. This power to ensnare and blind the other in the meshes of these for him mysterious interior forces, that the other, the lover would realize too late she’d surrendered her body, mind, and erotic being to the lover without ever thinking through this strange engulfment with reason or consciousness.

One could recite a long history of the erotic powers of the body and its representations in poetry, literature, philosophy and the strange mixture of science and philosophy that would become psychoanalysis, etc. Yet, in our time we’ve come full circle and begun separating out this intermixture of things realizing that speculation may offer interesting leaps of the figural imagination, but when it comes down to it we have no actual access to the underlying causes of such processes. As Einstein put it, “Gravity cannot be held responsible for people falling in love.” The point being that the science of gravity is still a mystery, but unlike gravity which can be quantified and measured love is beyond the observable measurement of scientific knowledge.

But is it?

“How on earth are you ever going to explain in terms of chemistry and physics so important a biological phenomenon as first love?” Einstein asked.

Part One: The Biochemical Connection

As David DiSalvo suggests thinking about one’s beloved—particularly in new relationships—triggers activity in the ventral tegmental area (VTA) of the brain, which releases a flood of the neurotransmitter dopamine (the so-called “pleasure chemical”) into the brain’s reward (or pleasure) centers, the caudate nucleus and nucleus accumbens. This gives the lover a high not unlike the effect of narcotics, and it’s mighty addictive. At the same time, the brain in love experiences an increase in the stress hormone norephinephrine, which increases heart rate and blood pressure, effects similar to those experienced by people using potent addictive stimulants like methamphetamine.

He mentions the work of Helen Fisher a biological anthropologist, who is a Research Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Rutgers University. She has written five books on the evolution and future of human sexuality, monogamy, adultery and divorce, gender differences in the brain, the chemistry of romantic love, and most recently, human personality types and why we fall in love with one person rather than another. As she recites:

“Love can start off with any of these three feelings,” Fisher maintains. “Some people have sex first and then fall in love. Some fall head over heels in love, then climb into bed. Some feel deeply attached to someone they have known for months or years; then circumstances change, they fall madly in love and have sex.” But the sex drive evolved to encourage you to seek a range of partners; romantic love evolved to enable you to focus your mating energy on just one at a time; and attachment evolved to enable you to feel deep union to this person long enough to rear your infants as a team.”

But these brain systems can be tricky. Having sex, Fisher says, can drive up dopamine in the brain and push you over the threshold toward falling in love. And with orgasm, you experience a flood of oxytocin and vasopressin–giving you feelings of attachment. “Casual sex isn’t always casual” Fisher reports, “it can trigger a host of powerful feelings.” In fact, Fisher believes that men and women often engage in “hooking up” to unconsciously trigger these feelings of romance and attachment.

What happens when you fall in love? Fisher says it begins when someone takes on “special meaning.” “The world has a new center,” Fisher says, “then you focus on him or her. You beloved’s car is different from every other car in the parking lot, for example. People can list what they don’t like about their sweetheart, but they sweep these things aside and focus on what they adore. Intense energy, elation, mood swings, emotional dependence, separation anxiety, possessiveness, a pounding heart and craving are all central to this madness. But most important is obsessive thinking.” As Fisher says, “Someone is camping in your head.”

Fisher and her colleagues have put 49 people into a brain scanner (fMRI) to study the brain circuitry of romantic love: 17 had just fallen madly in love; 15 had just been dumped; 17 reported they were still in love after an average of 21 years of marriage. One of her central ideas is that romantic love is a drive stronger than the sex drive. As she says, After all, if you causally ask someone to go to bed with you and they refuse, you don’t slip into a depression, or commit suicide or homicide; but around the world people suffer terribly from rejection in love.

Fisher also maintains that taking serotonin-enhancing antidepressants (SSRIs) can potentially dampen feelings of romantic love and attachment, as well as the sex drive.

Fisher has looked at marriage and divorce in 58 societies, adultery in 42 cultures, patterns of monogamy and desertion in birds and mammals, and gender differences in the brain and behavior. In her newest work, she reports on four biologically-based personality types, and using data on 28,000 people collected on the dating site, she explores who you are and why you are chemically drawn to some types more than others.

Yale News Reports

What can the neurosciences tell us about the mystery of these dark desires that up till now we could only tie to poetic or philosophical speculation? As Bill Hathaway reports in YaleNews meditation helps pinpoint neurological differences between two types of love. Yale School of Medicine researchers studying meditators discovered using fMRI scans that a more selfless variety of love — a deep and genuine wish for the happiness of others without expectation of reward — actually turns off the same reward areas that light up when lovers see each other.

As Judson Brewer “When we truly, selflessly wish for the well-being of others, we’re not getting that same rush of excitement that comes with, say, a tweet from our romantic love interest, because it’s not about us at all.” The reward centers of the brain that are strongly activated by a lover’s face (or a picture of cocaine) are almost completely turned off when a meditator is instructed to silently repeat sayings such as “May all beings be happy.”

Huffington Post describing aspects of this recounts Helen Fisher who in a TED talk (Why We Love) about the brain in love, said: “Romantic love is an obsession, it possesses you. You can’t stop thinking about another human being. Somebody is camping in your head…. Romantic love is one of the most addictive substances on Earth.” She went on to describe the sting of being rejected by one’s lover, too:

“When you’re dumped, the one thing you want it to just forget this human being and move ahead with your life, but no, you just love them harder.The reward system for wanting, for motivation, for craving for focus, becomes more active when you can’t get what you want.”

Like a drug we become addicted and can’t get enough so that many end up killing themselves, else turn aggressive, commit crimes of passion and other sordid and dark horrors upon ourselves or others. Carolyn Gregorie would also relate information about a 2011 study published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience looked at which brain regions are activated in individuals in long-term romantic partnerships (who had been married an average of 21 years), as compared to individuals who had recently fallen in love. The results, surprisingly, revealed similar brain activity in both groups.

As Adoree Durayappah in Psychology Today reports the “key to understanding how to sustain long-term romantic love is to understand it a bit scientifically. Our brains view long-term passionate love as a goal-directed behavior to attain rewards. Rewards can include the reduction of anxiety and stress, feelings of security, a state of calmness, and a union with another.”

As Gregorie tells us in another study conducted by Fisher and her colleagues found that most women who had recently fallen in love showed more brain activity in regions associated with reward, emotion and attention, whereas men tended to show the most activity in visual processing areas, including the area associated with sexual arousal. But that doesn’t mean that men are wired to look for sexual gratification rather than more enduring romantic connections.

Part Two: What about Quantum Biology?

In Nature’s Journal we’re introduced to the new science of quantum biology. Learning from nature is an idea as old as mythology — but until now, no one has imagined that the natural world has anything to teach us about the quantum world. As they describe it discoveries in recent years suggest that nature knows a few tricks that physicists don’t: coherent quantum processes may well be ubiquitous in the natural world. Known or suspected examples range from the ability of birds to navigate using Earth’s magnetic field to the inner workings of photosynthesis — the process by which plants and bacteria turn sunlight, carbon dioxide and water into organic matter, and arguably the most important biochemical reaction on Earth. (Physics of life: The dawn of quantum biology)

Quantum biology refers to applications of quantum mechanics and theoretical chemistry to biological objects and problems. Many biological processes involve the conversion of energy into forms that are usable for chemical transformations and are quantum mechanical in nature. Such processes involve chemical reactions, light absorption, formation of excited electronic states, transfer of excitation energy, and the transfer of electrons and protons (hydrogen ions) in chemical processes such as photosynthesis and cellular respiration. Quantum biology uses computation to model biological interactions in light of quantum mechanical effects.

Physicist Roger Penrose, of the University of Oxford, and anesthesiologist Stuart Hameroff, of the University of Arizona, were the first to propose that the brain acts as a quantum computer — a computational machine that makes use of quantum mechanical phenomena (like the ability of particles to be in two places at once) to perform complex calculations. In the brain, fibers inside neurons could form the basic units of quantum computation. Yet, there has been little evidence to support their Orch Or model. Penrose in The Emperor’s New Mind went on to propose: “[T]he evolution of conscious life on this planet is due to appropriate mutations having taken place at various times. These, presumably, are quantum events, so they would exist only in linearly superposed form until they finally led to the evolution of a conscious being—whose very existence depends on all the right mutations having ‘actually’ taken place!”

Orchestrated objective reduction (Orch-OR) is a model of consciousness theorized by theoretical physicist Sir Roger Penrose and anesthesiologist Stuart Hameroff, which claims that consciousness derives from deeper level, finer scale quantum activities inside the cells, most prevalent in the brain’s neurons. It combines approaches from the radically different angles of molecular biology, neuroscience, quantum physics, pharmacology, philosophy, quantum information theory, and aspects of quantum gravity. (Wiki)

In response to the criticisms of the Orch OR model cited in an article by Tanya Lewis on this new theoretic, Stuart Hameroff offers several pieces of evidence. In reply to the objection that the brain is too warm for quantum computations, Hameroff cites a 2013 study led by Anirban Bandyopadhyay at the National Institute of Material Sciences (NIMS) in Tsukuba, Japan, which found that “microtubules become essentially quantum conductive when stimulated at specific resonant frequencies,” Hameroff said.

In reply to the criticism that microtubules are found in (unconscious) plant cells too, Hameroff said that plants have only a small number of microtubules, likely too few to reach the threshold needed for consciousness. But he also noted that Gregory Engel of the University of Chicago and colleagues have observed quantum effects in plant photosynthesis. “If a tomato or rutabaga can utilize quantum coherence at warm temperature, why can’t our brains?” Hameroff said.

In an article by the authors of Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology Jim Al-Khalili and Johnjoe McFadden on the Guardian they describe the underlying quantum effects that the biochemical processes of life and brain. An excerpt:

70 years ago, the Austrian Nobel prize-winning physicist and quantum pioneer, Erwin Schrödinger, suggested in his famous book, What is Life?, that, deep down, some aspects of biology must be based on the rules and orderly world of quantum mechanics.

But what about life? Schrödinger pointed out that many of life’s properties, such as heredity, depend of molecules made of comparatively few particles – certainly too few to benefit from the order-from-disorder rules of thermodynamics. But life was clearly orderly. Where did this orderliness come from? Schrödinger suggested that life was based on a novel physical principle whereby its macroscopic order is a reflection of quantum-level order, rather than the molecular disorder that characterizes the inanimate world. He called this new principle “order from order”.

Up until a decade or so ago, most biologists would have said no. But as 21st-century biology probes the dynamics of ever-smaller systems – even individual atoms and molecules inside living cells – the signs of quantum mechanical behavior in the building blocks of life are becoming increasingly apparent. Recent research indicates that some of life’s most fundamental processes do indeed depend on weirdness welling up from the quantum undercurrent of reality. Here are a few of the most exciting examples.

Enzymes are the workhorses of life. They speed up chemical reactions so that processes that would otherwise take thousands of years proceed in seconds inside living cells. Life would be impossible without them. But how they accelerate chemical reactions by such enormous factors, often more than a trillion-fold, has been an enigma. Experiments over the past few decades, however, have shown that enzymes make use of a remarkable trick called quantum tunneling to accelerate biochemical reactions. Essentially, the enzyme encourages electrons and protons to vanish from one position in a biomolecule and instantly rematerialize in another, without passing through the gap in between – a kind of quantum teleportation.

And before you throw your hands up in incredulity, it should be stressed that quantum tunneling is a very familiar process in the subatomic world and is responsible for such processes as radioactive decay of atoms and even the reason the sun shines (by turning hydrogen into helium through the process of nuclear fusion). Enzymes have made every single biomolecule in your cells and every cell of every living creature on the planet, so they are essential ingredients of life. And they dip into the quantum world to help keep us alive.

Another vital process in biology is of course photosynthesis. Indeed, many would argue that it is the most important biochemical reaction on the planet, responsible for turning light, air, water and a few minerals into grass, trees, grain, apples, forests and, ultimately, the rest of us who eat either the plants or the plant-eaters.

The initiating event is the capture of light energy by a chlorophyll molecule and its conversion into chemical energy that is harnessed to fix carbon dioxide and turn it into plant matter. The process whereby this light energy is transported through the cell has long been a puzzle because it can be so efficient – close to 100% and higher than any artificial energy transport process.

The first step in photosynthesis is the capture of a tiny packet of energy from sunlight that then has to hop through a forest of chlorophyll molecules to makes its way to a structure called the reaction center where its energy is stored. The problem is understanding how the packet of energy appears to so unerringly find the quickest route through the forest. An ingenious experiment, first carried out in 2007 in Berkley, California, probed what was going on by firing short bursts of laser light at photosynthetic complexes. The research revealed that the energy packet was not hopping haphazardly about, but performing a neat quantum trick. Instead of behaving like a localized particle travelling along a single route, it behaves quantum mechanically, like a spread-out wave, and samples all possible routes at once to find the quickest way.

A third example of quantum trickery in biology – the one we introduced in our opening paragraph – is the mechanism by which birds and other animals make use of the Earth’s magnetic field for navigation. Studies of the European robin suggest that it has an internal chemical compass that utilises an astonishing quantum concept called entanglement, which Einstein dismissed as “spooky action at a distance”. This phenomenon describes how two separated particles can remain instantaneously connected via a weird quantum link. The current best guess is that this takes place inside a protein in the bird’s eye, where quantum entanglement makes a pair of electrons highly sensitive to the angle of orientation of the Earth’s magnetic field, allowing the bird to “see” which way it needs to fly.

All these quantum effects have come as a big surprise to most scientists who believed that the quantum laws only applied in the microscopic world. All delicate quantum behaviour was thought to be washed away very quickly in bigger objects, such as living cells, containing the turbulent motion of trillions of randomly moving particles. So how does life manage its quantum trickery? Recent research suggests that rather than avoiding molecular storms, life embraces them, rather like the captain of a ship who harnesses turbulent gusts and squalls to maintain his ship upright and on course.

Just as Schrödinger predicted, life seems to be balanced on the boundary between the sensible everyday world of the large and the weird and wonderful quantum world, a discovery that is opening up an exciting new field of 21st-century science

Read the full article: You’re powered by quantum mechanics. No, really… and, their new book: Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology.


So the next time you feel compelled to kiss your loved one stop and think about all those miniscule neurons and biochemical factories churning away below that bony skull of yours that are waking up and cooking a little sexual desire in their brain kitchen of Love; and while you’re at it go on and embrace the turbulent quantum storms pulsing below the threshold in the motions of trillions of quantum effects that are drawing you ever so close to that strange world of quantum biology and the effects of light and eros. Embrace your quants!

An interesting reading list:

2 thoughts on “Neural Love: The Quantum Dynamics of Life, Love, and Neuroscience

  1. I’ve corresponded with McFadden for years now, and I *heartily* recommend Life on the Edge (I’m only reading the published version now). In it, he and Al’Khalili are at pains to distinguish the burgeoning *science* of quantum biology from the claims made by Penrose and Hamerhoff (which are not taken seriously in the community primarily because they require that large, molecular structures exist in superposition).

    But the fact that Penrose and Hameroff are probably wrong (I think they’re simply the most sophisticated of the ‘quantum rationalizers’) doesn’t mean that quantum effects don’t have *something* to do with consciousness. McFadden’s own EMF theory of consciousness posits that neural evolution takes advantage of a quantum sensitivity to very weak field effects–much as the robin uses cryptochrome (a photoreceptor) as a quantum compass. Perhaps the brain uses more than fat to goose and structure neural connectivity!

    It certainly offers an elegant solution to the integration problem (which looms large over BBT as well).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, great, yea just been reading it … quite intriguing. Using some of it in my current work-in-progress… 🙂 Yea, let me know what you think of their book after you’re done?

      Yea, Penrose is too much a Platonist… that says it all.


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