Review of Wired for Love: A neuroscientist investigates her marriage

This gripping book sees neuroscientists Stephanie Cacioppo explore the effect on her cognitive function when she fell in love with another scientist


April 13, 2022

Stephanie Ortigue and John T. Cacioppo traced their budding love

Joe Sterbenc / University of Chicago

Wired for Love: A neuroscientist’s journey through romance, loss and the essence of human connection

Stephanie Cacioppo

SHE studied love, he researched loneliness – it was such a perfect match that it could have been done in a lab. When Stephanie Ortigue met John T. Cacioppo at a neuroscience conference in Shanghai, both knew that their whirlwind romance would be influenced by their research and in turn informed about it.

It was 2011. Stephanie was 36, and published magazines about couple bonding and romantic love, even though she never knew it herself. “I assumed I would never experience romance outside the laboratory,” she writes. John was an expert on the dangers of loneliness for physical and mental well-being, and at age 60 he was divorced twice, “not alone, but alone,” he said.

Both were self-proclaimed workaholics until they found love, and almost at first glance. “And once I did, my life and my research changed forever,” writes Stephanie (who took her husband’s name). Now, in Wired for Love, Cacioppo is moving away from case studies and directing his scientific attention to his marriage. Her book is “both the story of my science and the science behind my story”.

As a story about romance, it is epic and culminates in a wedding in Luxembourg in Paris and a profile in the popular column Modern Love in The New York Times. But what takes Cacioppo’s story beyond a heartwarming reminder to never lose hope is their professional insights into our brains in love.

Through their courtship and marriage, Stephanie and John studied themselves, observing and noting “the intention, the subtext behind each step we took as a newly started couple” and its effect on cognitive function.

IN Wired for Love, Cacioppo explores their findings at a critical distance. What was behind their immediate attraction? How could they feel so close when they were often seas apart? Would they have fallen in love if they had not found each other physically attractive? What role did their expectations play? And for two people who thought they were in love with their work, how was it for real?

Cacioppo, a psychiatrist and behavioral scientist at the University of Chicago, expands her experience of studying (her own and others) for the sake of non-scientific readers who may be trying to understand and cultivate romantic connections themselves. The appetite for these scientific insights into our personal lives is evident in popular literature such as the latest Heartbreak: A personal and scientific journey by journalist Florence Williams. And it is even shown by the shy requests of Cacioppo’s students to use her “love machine”, a patented computer test that aims to reveal their unconscious preferences for partners from their brain activity.

Still, Cacioppo – who became the first female president of the Society for Social Neuroscience – describes struggling to be taken seriously early in her research on romantic love, with most neuroscientists focusing on the darker side of the emotional spectrum.

In the early 2000s, a male faculty counselor told her that studying love would be “career suicide”, that the subject was too easy to form the basis of academic research. She could first overcome that prejudice by replacing the word “love”, in a grant proposal, with “couple bonding”.

And by studying the brain in love, we can see it as a complex and solid neurobiological phenomenon, which suggests to Cacioppo that “love is not only a feeling but also a way of thinking”.

Her early career experience speaks of snobbery and sexism that play into what is considered worth studying, as well as how much we do not know about what can be considered a universal experience and an essential need.

When covid-19 was exposed, Cacioppo writes, “the need for love may be less immediate than the need to avoid danger, but it is by no means a luxury.” In fact, John’s death from cancer in 2018 shows the potential of love to both destroy and survive. Cacioppo boldly confronts his loss and concludes that “love is a much more expansive concept than we give it credit for”, which not everything can, or should, be explained by chemistry.

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