Close your eyes for three seconds, Dr Stephanie Cacioppo instructs me early in our conversation. You might like to do the same at home, or on the train, or wherever you are. Now think of the person that you love most in the world. Got them? Remember the last time you made them laugh out loud. One-two-three. “Did that bring a smile to your face?” asks Cacioppo, a neuroscientist at the University of Chicago, who specialises on the impact of love on the brain, and is the author of a new book, Wired for Love.
It did. “It works all the time,” she goes on. “It’s because of this fantastic wiring we have in our brain that activates the love network, but also the mirror neuron system. That’s the neuro system that is activated when you move, but also when you anticipate or think about the actions or emotions of others. So imagining someone smiling, it’s like activating your own smile as well.”
Dr Cacioppo suggests the exercise might be useful for astronauts, who can spend months away from their loved ones on a space station. It could also come in handy, say, during a global pandemic that makes us housebound for the better part of two years. But the memory game has a personal resonance for Cacioppo, who is 47 and has a big smile and rolling wave of platinum-blonde hair. In March 2018 her partner, Dr John Cacioppo, a social neuroscientist who was a pioneer of research into loneliness, died unexpectedly, aged 66.
Theirs had, in some ways, been an unlikely relationship: not least because it brought together two experts who had been christened in the media as Dr Love and Dr Loneliness. When they met in January 2011 at a neuroscience research symposium in Shanghai, she was in her mid-30s and he was in his late-50s; both were adamant they were not looking for a partner. But in less than a year, they were married and inseparable. They worked inches apart at one desk and shared an office at the University of Chicago with “The Cacioppos” on the door. They came at their research from opposite ends of the spectrum, but both passionately believed that the human need for social connection was as essential to a person’s wellbeing as clean water, nutritious food or exercise.
So, when Stephanie Cacioppo closes her eyes, she sees John. “Love is a biological necessity. We cannot live without it,” she says. “And that’s hard to say for someone who lost their best friend, their soul mate, and the love of their life. But I realised that love does not have to be with the person who is physically here with you. Like we mentioned with the astronaut, we can be in love with someone even if they live far away from you. Or even if they passed away; we lost so many people in our lives during Covid and I think many people can relate to that.
“One key to keeping John’s love alive was actually to realise that he was gone, and to face the pain that he was not physically here,” Cacioppo goes on. “And once I let go, once I really faced that pain, I saw him everywhere, all around me. In different ways I could feel his love and I still really feel his love everywhere. That was beautiful for me and I hope that can inspire people to feel connected and not lonely.”
Wired for Love: a Neuroscientist’s Journey Through Romance, Loss and the Essence of Human Connection is very much not the book that Cacioppo expected to write. She has spent her career attempting to prove that love was a worthy subject of scientific study (she received strong pushback on this idea from other researchers who considered it a primitive impulse, almost an addiction). Her work was evidence-based: she conducted electroencephalogram (EEG) tests to track electrical signals produced by the brain and functional MRI scanning techniques to delineate between love and lust. Understanding love was about science, not stories or, heaven forfend, poetry.
It was an important time for an in-depth analysis of love, Cacioppo felt. By several parameters, humans appear to be experiencing less love, and more loneliness, than ever before. Marriage rates for opposite-sex couples have been in steady decline in the UK since the 1970s. In 2018, the Office for National Statistics reported that they were the lowest ever recorded. Despite the proliferation of dating apps, we seem to be having less sex than ever. In 2018, nearly a quarter of Americans – again, another record – said they had no sexual encounters in the previous year. Among the factors believed to contribute to this “sex drought” are smartphones, the gig economy, open-plan offices (perhaps counterintuitively) and more people living in cities.
But when Cacioppo came to work on her serious science book, details of her own relationship with John kept bobbing to the surface. As she wrote them down, she began to realise that she had never told even her closest friends most of what happened in their rollercoaster, seven-year relationship. “Sharing that story was really excruciating,” she says, “because it’s really against my nature. I’m a shy and private person, but I felt like it was kind of a mission for me to conquer my shyness and share my story and the science behind my story with the readers. The hope being that it will help people not only appreciate more the beauty and the nature of human connections, but also perhaps find love and maintain love in their own life.”
The strange truth is that romantic love has been elusive for Dr Love for most of her life. Growing up in the outskirts of Chambéry in the French Alps, Stephanie Ortigue was the only child of passionate French-Italian parents who set a dauntingly high bar for what a relationship should look and feel like. To avoid feeling like a gooseberry, she threw herself first into tennis and then science.
“I didn’t understand why I was born an only child,” says Cacioppo, who now lives in Oregon, in a house near some woods with her dog, a shar-pei called Bacio. “I thought that just because of that, that was my fate: I was born alone, I will die alone. Typical romantic, French dramatic. And on top of that, my dear Italian grandmother told me to dress up nicely every day just in case that was the last day of our life. So my attitude was: I live as if I were going to die tomorrow and I enjoy life as if I am going to live forever.
“On top of that, I had my parents displaying this beautiful, perfect relationship that seems quite honestly unattainable. But it was inspiring and I love challenges. So I don’t take impossible as an answer and I always thought that maybe one day…”
Cacioppo didn’t have serious boyfriends as a teenager or in college, and in her 20s she threw herself into her research, initially at the Geneva University Hospital and then Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. One of her early findings was that romantic love seemed to activate 12 specific brain regions. Some of these were not a big surprise: Cacioppo expected it to fire up the so-called “emotional” brain and the dopamine-hungry “reward” system. What was unexpected was that passionate love – distinct from friendship or maternal love – also triggered some of the most sophisticated, higher-order regions of the brain. One in particular: the angular gyrus.
The angular gyrus, which is found tucked behind the ear, was developed relatively recently in our evolutionary history (only apes and humans have it). It is generally linked to abstract thought and language; photos of Einstein’s brain have shown that this area was unusually large. For Cacioppo, the discovery was proof that “love played a more complex role in the brain than anyone could have reasonably guessed”. Her research also showed that, while we might believe that how we experienced love was unique, what was happening on a biological level was pretty much identical for all of us. “Regardless of where you were born, whether you were gay or straight, male, female, transgendered, if a person – or persons – were significant to you, they can light up this network in the same essential way,” Cacioppo writes in Wired for Love.
It was groundbreaking work, but for Cacioppo personally, love remained a theoretical concept. That changed at the conference in Shanghai in 2011. She has no doubt that “love at first sight” exists and there is scientific research to back it up: directeye-to-eye contact has been shown to spark activity in that core area of the angular gyrus. “I felt really fulfilled in a way, at that time,” recalls Cacioppo. “And I genuinely thought I was happy until I met my husband, who really proved me wrong! I was happier with him than ever before.”
In the beginning, John Cacioppo, who had been married twice before, was the more wary of the pair. After their first meeting, with him back in Chicago and her in Geneva, it was Stephanie who sent the follow-up message. “I’ve always been a fiercely independent woman, but yes, I did send that email,” she says. “And I’m really glad I did. Because his prefrontal cortex – what I call ‘the parents in the brain’ – was more dominant than his intuition, or the part of his mind that felt like his heart. So I don’t think he would ever have sent an email.”
The Cacioppos’ relationship moved fast, and in many ways they felt like they had the blessing of the science. Stephanie’s research suggested there were significant mental and physical benefits to being in love: rather than being distracted, people in love can benefit from the explosion of activity in their angular gyrus and be more creative and motivated. Likewise, data from one of John’s studies found that chronic loneliness increases the odds of an early death by 20%. This was about the same impact as being obese – “though obesity does not make you as miserable as loneliness”, John Cacioppo told the Observer in 2016.
“We joked about Dr Loneliness meeting Dr Love, but the title didn’t really play a role in our relationship,” she says. “But our science really was part of our life: we tried to apply our science to everyday to make sure that Dr Love and Dr Loneliness will have this lasting love and will be happy ever after.”
Theirs was not an uncomplicated coupling. In 2015, John was diagnosed with a rare form of salivary gland cancer; he had to undergo aggressive chemotherapy and radiation treatment, and for months was fed through a tube. But he recovered well enough to return to full-time teaching. His appetite came back and he rebuilt his depleted body with daily exercise sessions. Eventually, he was told by doctors that he had “turned another corner”, but soon afterwards he started coughing violently. The cancer had spread to his lungs.
In Wired for Love, Cacioppo is unsparing about the impact her husband’s death had on her: she was depressed, unsure that “a meaningful life” was still possible. Today, she is still clearly raw, but defiant. “When you go through all these emotions, like I did, you feel like the passenger of your life, rather than the driver of your life,” she says. “And this is really disturbing in a way, because you really don’t know what’s happening.
“But I’m a living proof of my science; I survived partly thanks to it,” Cacioppo continues. “That’s why I want to share it with readers; I want to share that experience and all the tricks and drills of the mind. And help them understand how the brain works, so then they can regain control of their own brain and feel that they are in charge of their emotions, rather than being the victim of their emotions.”
The first stage of recovery for Cacioppo was exercise. She ran six miles a day (a 20-minute daily walk will also help) and realised she was happiest when she was helping others. “Losing my husband was a huge mental shower,” she says. “I really understood what was important in life – and it’s not me. I used to be an only child, always spoiled and the centre of attention, at least for my Italian grandmother. But now I see there is something bigger than me and it’s very humbling.”
One of the great challenges for our society, says Cacioppo, is tackling loneliness. It’s an invidious problem, but there are strategies that can help. “The worst thing you can do to a lonely person is try to help them,” she notes in Wired for Love. “If you know somebody who’s lonely, ask them to help you. Being shown respect, being depended upon, being made to understand your own importance – all these things can give a lonely person a sense of worth and belonging.”
Even the simple exercise we started the article with can reduce feelings of isolation. “Understanding that our brain is our best friend,” says Cacioppo, “that we can really stay connected with others just with the power of our mind, just by imagining them with us right now, that will also help people feel less lonely.”
As for what’s next for Cacioppo, personally and professionally, she’s not sure. “I’ll talk to my dog and see what she thinks about it,” she says, with a giggle. But then she turns more serious. “If there is one take-home message from my story, it doesn’t come from me, it comes from Maya Angelou, who beautifully wrote, ‘Have enough courage to trust love one more time and always one more time.’”
Wired for Love by Dr Stephanie Cacioppo is published by Little, Brown at £20, or buy a copy from guardianbookshop.com for £17.40