The Science of Love

Science 2016-02-12

It’s almost Valentines Day – a time for gifts, flowers and most importantly, a day to express your love for that special someone. Anyone who has ever experienced love would say there is no greater feeling than to love and to be loved and might also say it is an unexplainable, complex feeling. Arguably, the magic of love lies in its mystery, but why exactly do we feel the pull of desire, love and infatuation? And can the secrets of love be explained and unlocked by something as unromantic as science?

 

In fact, there is actually a lot of science behind it. Love is really just the result of a significant number of chemical reactions and excited neurons, combined with a multitude of hormones to guide us through the three so-called stages of love: lust, attraction and attachment.

 

In recent years, our ability to view the brain in action has offered significant insight into the mechanisms of love. Research has shown that dozens of brain regions (namely the reward and pleasure centres, but also emotion and motivational brain areas) become active when a person falls in love, triggering feelings of euphoria, bonding and excitement. Other MRI studies have shown that the frontal cortex, vital to judgement, shuts down and becomes de-activated when we fall in love, causing people to suspend all criticism or doubt towards their partner, as well as affecting our willingness to take more risks that would normally seem reckless. Scientists believe this is for higher biological purposes, ensuring the most unlikely pairs can get together and reproduce. Other areas, including those controlling fear and negative emotions, also shut down.

 

These studies prove that biologically, love is a powerful, neurological condition like hunger or thirst and we talk about love being blind in the sense that we have no control over it, but then this isn’t surprising since love is basically chemistry, and the chemistry happens as follows:

 

Science of Love

 

Every love story in history began with dopamine. Dopamine is a chemical, as well as a neurotransmitter, that enhances hormone levels, affects numerous organs, sweat glands and senses. It basically makes us focus our desire on that one special person. It affects many processes in the brain, contributing to our emotional responses, movement, ability to express pleasure and also pain, thus reinforcing feelings of enjoyment and motivation. Also, as a precursor of noradrenaline, there will be no adrenaline, sweaty palms or racing heart if insufficient levels of dopamine are reached.

 

In effect, high dopamine levels in the brain tell us that being around our partner is synonymous with pleasure and acts as a natural stimulant. It is the reason we get that feeling of ecstasy during the early stages of love. Ultimately, once your body has been loaded with this chemical, you enter the lust stage.

 

Lust

Described as a temporary, passionate desire; lust is a hormone-driven phase, namely involving increased levels of the sex hormones – testosterone and oestrogen. Motivating us to find a mate, this initial stage of love has health-promoting and stress-reducing properties, although it can lead the way to a more complex stage.

 

Attraction

During this stage, blood flows to the pleasure centres of the brain, inducing the feel-good reward pathway and giving those falling in love a feeling of overwhelming fixation, focused desire on one person and increased alertness and arousal.

 

Increased dopamine and noradrenaline levels, coupled with a decrease in serotonin, drive these emotions so that we begin to feel love, obsession and excitement, as well as experiencing increased heart rates, declined senses, sweaty palms and dry mouths when we are around that person. Serotonin normally provides a sense of control, guarding us against feelings of anxiety, uncertainty and instability. When levels drop, as they do in love, our sense of control decreases and we become obsessively fixated on things that affect our certainty and stability. Low serotonin levels are common in people with obsessive-compulsive disorders, which may explain why we concentrate on little other than our partner during the early stages of a relationship. However, serotonin is also key in regulating our moods and appetite, explaining why we sometimes feel anxious and lose our ability to eat when we’re falling in love.

 

Due to the strength of the chemical cocktail in the attraction phase, our alertness is increased and we feel a desire associated with our partner, however, this stage can also become addictive. This may explain why some people can’t walk out of a relationship and helps us to understand some of the madness that comes with falling in love.

 

Attachment

After the crazy attraction phase, serotonin and adrenaline levels go back to normal giving way to oxytocin and vasopressin. This stage helps couples take their relationship to advanced levels. Oxytocin is a powerful hormone (particularly important during childbirth, creating a strong bond between a mother and her child) released by men and women equally. It helps formulate the depth of love, improve interaction and forge attachment as well as a strong bond between two people. Vasopressin is also known to be an important hormone to help promote long-lasting relationships and has a vital role in partner preference and commitment.

 

It is clear that love isn’t random by any means. It’s a chemical concoction, enough to make us crazy…and it does. However, science tells us that we have much less conscious control over how we feel than we might think, and from an evolutionary perspective, love is, in effect, a survival tool – a mechanism evolved to promote long-term relationships, feelings of safety and security, as well as parental support of children.

 

Do you think love can truly be explained by science? Tweet me @JennyatNotch

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