Here at Brainscape we know there is something magical about falling in love. You think about the other person almost obsessively. You feel excited and happy all the time; it’s a kind of natural high. Where do those feelings come from?
Scientists still have not 100% figured out love (who knows if they ever will!), but research has revealed that love triggers chemical reactions in the brain that make us feel a range of emotions and experience physical symptoms ranging from increased heartbeat to those traditional “butterflies” in the stomach.
Read on to discover exactly what comprises the physiology of love.
Your Brain and the Physiology of Love
Addicted to You
Have you ever heard someone say they “just can’t get enough” of someone they’ve just started dating? This almost obsessive first stage of love can seem crazy to a third-party outsider, but we all have felt that strong first attraction to someone before. The pull of attraction is just as strong as the need for that first cup of coffee for a caffeine addict. Why does it feel that way?
Well, according to neuroscientists, the first stage of romantic love releases the same neurotransmitters that your brain would release during a high from a drug. It’s chemical. We start to crave time with that person the same way the body craves any other addiction. Dopamine, which is associated with feelings of euphoria, surges when we are around the object of our affection (or even if we think about them). This makes us desperate to get more and more of that high.
Serotonin levels in the brain, on the other hand, drop dramatically. Since serotonin usually regulates our mood, we start feeling these positive emotions towards the other person even more strongly. This causes the “crazy love” that we can feel for the person in question. In fact, after six months of this “madly in love” stage of dating, our serotonin levels actually hit the same level as someone with OCD. We are literally compulsively obsessed with the person we love. That’s why it can hurt so much to end a relationship at this stage, despite the short duration. Our bodies go through a type of “withdrawal” from our ex-partner.
Falling Head Over Heels
The chemical reactions in our head are not the only physiological symptoms of love. Physical attraction to our partners in the early stages of love actually creates a full-body stress response. That may sound odd, since love and stress don’t seem to be related, but the symptoms are the same. Think back to the last time you gave a big presentation that you felt nervous about. You probably had sweaty palms and had butterflies in your stomach. Your heart was racing, and you felt a bit more on edge than usual. Notice any similarities? The emotions may be different, but the physical reaction is the same.
That’s because the physiologies of love and stress are similar. Both cause you to release adrenaline and cortisol in anticipation. If you’ve ever wondered why it’s called “falling” in love, that may be why. Our body reacts to love in the same way it might when experiencing the adrenaline-pumping moments leading up to a rollercoaster drop.
After a while, though, we stop feeling butterflies in our stomachs every time we think of our lover, and those obsessive thoughts begin to mellow out. Love feels different. That’s because the neurotransmitters released and hormone responses in reaction to our partners change over time. Dopamine levels begin to drop and the anticipation of seeing the other person stops initiating a hormonal stress response.
So what keeps us in love? That’s where the hormone oxytocin comes into play. Oxytocin is released by both men and women during physical contact and sex, especially during orgasm. This hormone deepens and strengthens the feelings of attachment to our partner. The more we release oxytocin, the more attached we feel. The endorphin system takes over, and we develop feelings of tranquility, stability, contentment, and safety within our relationships. These feelings can be maintained, keeping a couple together for many years, or they can erode over time.
That doesn’t mean that the spark goes away either. Couples that say they are still madly in love with one another have increased dopamine activity just like those still in the early stages of a relationship. The difference is that the body processes it differently. Love may not have the “crazy, obsessed” feeling anymore, but it still can bring increased happiness and a “high” from time spent together.
When you really think about how the psychology and physiology of love change over time to make relationships possible, it’s fascinating. Our brains are so complex that we are unaware of the majority of what they do for us. I personally find psychology interesting for just that reason. If you want to learn more about how the brain reacts to love (and everything else in our lives), get started learning the basics of psychology with our Psych 101 app or move on to a higher level with our decks on GRE Psychology and AP Psych.
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