“You know it when you feel it.” This is a common phrase used often to describe the mystery around falling in love. We like to think of romantic love as an almost supernatural experience that happens in which we have little control. As neuroscience becomes more advanced we get to look at love on a neurological level and understand more precisely what is happening in our brains when we fall in love.
Love on the Brain
Much of what we know about our brain in love is due to research conducted by Dr. Helen Fisher, an American anthropologist, and human behavior researcher. Fisher and colleagues studied the brains of 2,500 college students who were currently in the beginning stages of romantic love using MRI imaging.
During the MRI scans, participants were asked to view pictures of both acquaintances and those with whom they were romantically linked. The study found that when participants viewed photos of loved ones, areas of the brain linked to the reward system went ablaze.
Through research pioneered by Helen Fisher, neuroimaging has shown that the brain releases a host of chemicals and hormones that result in falling in love. Helen and colleagues have divided the biology behind love into three categories to explain this phenomenon further.
Lust is our brain’s primal drive to reproduce and continue the species. As Lust implies, individuals will experience intense sexual desire during this stage. Our brain’s hypothalamus, which stimulates the hormones estrogen and testosterone, will increase priming the body for sex. Regardless of gender, both testosterone and estrogen play a role in an individual’s libido; however, the effects of estrogen are less pronounced.
While lust and attraction are closely correlated during the attraction phase, our brain’s reward system becomes highly activated, thus increasing pleasurable responses in association with one’s partner.
The brain’s reward system is located in the Ventral Tegmental Area (VTA) and the Caudate Nucleus. Both areas of the brain that were shown increased activation in the Helen Fisher MRI experiment. It’s the same brain area that is activated when one is high on cocaine. The neurotransmitter dopamine is also created within the VTA.
Dopamine is the “feel-good” hormone that gives us the motivation and energy to seek out what is pleasurable. From a biological standpoint, increased dopamine allows us to seek sex and want to increase emotional and physical closeness to our loved ones. This is why falling in love can feel addictive and all-consuming.
With increased dopamine levels, higher levels of the hormone norepinephrine will be released, which controls the body’s fight-or-flight response. Norepinephrine is what gives us those feelings of butterflies in our stomach, racing heart, and overall excitement to be around our partner.
During the attraction phase there is a decrease in serotonin production. Serotonin plays a key role in sleep, mood, and appetite. Scientists speculate that because individuals with obsessive compulsive disorder have lower levels of serotonin when individuals are in the attraction phase of love, it increases the individuals’ obsession over their new romance and might decrease their sleep and appetite.
The last and final stage of falling in love is the attachment phase when you and your partner create a long term meaningful bond with one another. The two main hormones being released from the brain during this time are oxytocin and vasopressin.
The hormone oxytocin is produced in the hypothalamus and is also referred to as “the cuddle hormone” is released during skin-to-skin contact. This is the same hormone released during child birth and breastfeeding to increase attachment.
Vasopressin is created in the pituitary gland and when released in large quantities in the body scientist believe that it encourages pair-bonding to promote feelings of security and attachment.
Why Does it Feel so Good to Fall in Love?
Love can feel so great and be so addicting due to the amount of feel-good hormones and chemicals produced in the brain during romantic relationships, especially during the beginning stages. Love also activates our brain’s reward center, leading us sometimes to feel obsessed with being around a romantic partner.
When we are entering into a new romantic relationship or ending one understanding, in that case, the biology of love can help to normalize our experiences and help us to gain better insight into understanding our behaviors and actions.