Love Is In the Air and On the Brain
It is that time of year when love is celebrated – Valentine’s Day. Whether you are in the throes of new love or have been blessed with long-lasting love, Valentine’s Day brings attention to love. Even though the heart is regarded as the symbol of love, it is actually the brain that makes love happen. What is this thing called love?
Not to take the romance out of love, but our brains are uniquely designed to mate and procreate. We had to keep the species going somehow! The biological anthropologist, Helen Fisher, studied 166 societies and found evidence of romantic love in 147 of them. Richard Schwartz of the Harvard Medical School indicates from these findings that “there’s good reason to suspect that romantic love is kept alive by something basic to our biological nature”. When you are in love your brain is flooded with chemicals and hormones. This combination of chemistry produces feelings of pleasure, obsession, and attachment. We don’t have a chance!
The Three Phases of Love: Lust
Love has been divided into three phases by neuroscientists: lust, attraction, and attachment. That first phase is a whammy – during the lust phase, hormones flood the body with feelings of intense desire. Adrenalin and norepinephrine are released causing racing heart and sweaty palms while the chemical dopamine increase feelings of euphoria. The stress hormone cortisol is also in the mix of this initial phase of romantic love. As cortisol levels rise, serotonin levels fall. As described by Schwartz, these low levels of serotonin are responsible for the “intrusive, maddeningly preoccupying thoughts, hopes, and terrors of early love” – the obsessive-compulsive behaviors associated with infatuation. This drop in serotonin can cause a very singular focus on their object of affection. This can be why many lovers can be blind to their partners less desirable traits and see only their good qualities. Being love-struck causes high levels of dopamine to be released which get the reward system activated. This is the same part of the brain that makes love a pleasurable experience similar to the euphoria of cocaine and morphine. I guess you can be addicted to love!
The Three Phases of Love: Attraction
During the attraction phase, your blood is pumped to the nucleus accumbens – the brain’s pleasure center. Imaging has shown that this part of the brain lights up when people are in love. This accounts for the fixation people have for each other in this phase.
Like many chemicals, the body’s tolerance level to the pleasurable chemicals that have been flooding it through the early phases of love, start dropping. During the attraction phase another set of chemicals is released. Oxytocin and vasopressin now take over. Oxytocin is known as the love hormone and brings on feelings of contentment, calmness and security – associated with bonding.
The Three Phases of Love: Attachment
Vasopressin is linked to long-term monogamous relationships. This transition in chemicals can account for the fading of passion as attachment grows. So you have survived the first couple of years of up and down intense emotion. What’s next? The passion remains but the stress of a new relationship is gone. Cortisol and serotonin levels return back to normal. There is still passion as the relationship proceeds but the constant craving and desire found in romantic love – lessens.
This love that is deep but not as euphoric as romantic love is compassionate love. A 2011 study conducted at Stony Brook University in New York found that it is possible to be madly in love with someone after decades of marriage. Imaging studies revealed that dopamine-rich areas of the brain have the same intensity as new love. With apprehension gone, romance remains!
For those who have been married many years and and have transitioned from passionate, romantic love to a more compassionate, routine love, these studies reveal that their love can be reignited. Sexual activity can pump oxytocin levels and activate the brain’s reward system. There is no age limit on love.
Love is grand!
Ackerman,D. (March 24, 2012). The brain on love. The New York Times. Retrieved February 3, 2016 from http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/03/24/the-brian-on-love/?_r=0
Edwards,S. Love and the Brain. On the Brain. Retrieved February 11, 2016 from http://neuro.hms.harvard.edu/harvard-mahoney-neuroscience-institute/brain-newsletter/and-brain-series/love-and-brain
Lewis,T. (February 14, 2014). 5 ways love affects the brain. Retrieved February 11, 2016 from http://www.livescience.com.