Wired for Love: A Neuroscientist's Journey Through Romance, Loss, and the Essence of Human Connection

Image of Wired for Love: A Neuroscientist's Journey Through Romance, Loss, and the Essence of Human Connection
Release Date: 
April 5, 2022
Flatiron Books
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The author grew up in France near Lyon, the gastronomic capital of the world. Her parents were so focused on food and each other that she—an only child—felt like an outsider. "There was just one person who . . . made me feel like I truly belonged, a person with whom I could just be: my Italian grandmother.”

“She taught me how to make gnocchi by hand. She taught me the funny-sounding Italian dialect she spoke as a girl.” Her grandmother's sudden death “shaped my entire career, my whole view of the world.” 

In her teenage years she was obsessed with romance but had no real boyfriends. “I still don’t quite understand exactly why social life was such a mystery to me." In graduate school, still keeping love at a distance, she studied fMRI scans to determine which parts of the brain become active when a person views a photo of their beloved. “I assumed I would never experience romance outside the laboratory. I told myself that being unattached made me a more objective researcher: I could investigate love without being under its spell.” 

Though she had no personal experience, her research established her as an expert on love. She refers immodestly to her scholarship as “a lodestar in the expanding universe of social neuroscience.” 

At the age of 37, her life changed. She met neuroscientist John Cacioppo at a conference in China. He was 23 years—and two divorces—her senior. She moved quickly to the University of Chicago where John directed the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience. There they shared the same office and the same desk. “Our appetite for being together seemed insatiable: We ran together, we did the laundry together, we were food shopping together, we brushed our teeth together.” She had published over 50 scientific papers under her own name, Stephanie Ortigue, but took John's last name when they married. Some colleagues “looked askance at me because . . . I wanted to share an office with him, or that I had chosen to take his name.” 

Michael Gazzaniga, the Dartmouth neuroscientist she originally came to the U.S. to work with, wrote a blurb for this book in which he said their relationship was “wacky from the start.” Wacky or not, Stephanie describes their relationship in glowing terms. It was as if she had won the romantic equivalent of the Powerball with the purchase of a single lottery ticket. Finding perfect love the first time is delightfully romantic, but readers who have diligently searched and been unable to find love may feel depressed.

Dr. Love, as the author has been called by the media, offers a prescription for such depression. "Love," she says “is a choice.” She backs this up with research in which “participants sat down together, face each other, and took turns answering a series of thirty-six increasingly personal questions.” She says self-disclosure “quickly and reliably created the kind of intimacy essential to the formation of romantic love.”

She continues to say “,once you and your partner begin to self-disclose, one of two things will happen: (1) your relationship will get stronger, or (2) you will realize that you shouldn’t be in your relationship.” Presumably, engaging in self-disclosure with enough potential partners should eventually result in a loving relationship.

Five years into their relationship, John was diagnosed with cancer. Fighting cancer brought them even closer together. When he died two years later, an extended period of intense grieving pushed her to the edge of suicide.

Radical change was in the works. John's death—as her grandmother's death did before— reshaped her whole view of the world. In the research she did at the beginning of their relationship, she stated “a healthy love life is as necessary to a person’s well-being as nutritious food, exercise, or clean water. Evolution has sculpted our brains and bodies specifically to build and benefit from lasting romantic connections.” She claimed "romantic love and other types of love . . . are different emotional and cognitive states characterized by specific and different networks in the human brain.” She included a drawing of the brain that shows passionate love and other types of love light up on a fMRI in a completely different way.  

In that research she stated love is something "we cannot realize our full potential as human beings without." Now, everything is turned on its head. She redefines love as "social connectedness.” She reverses her research findings. She claims—without citing any research— that brain activity when loving a person is "very similar" to brain activity when loving a sport or a career.

Did being detached make her a more objective researcher? Did falling in love lead to comments that romantic love is essential? Did loss force her to redefine love as social connectedness? Can we take any of her views seriously? We don’t need to. After all, who knows more about love: a person who observes areas light up on a brain scan or a person who lights up the faces of loved ones?