Thoughts / love and the brain
When I was a little bit younger and my friends began the coupling process, I had a habit of saying “I love it when people are in love.”
And I did. And I still do. But I must admit, I don’t get to witness the ‘love’ that I was referring to back then so much these days.
You see I wasn’t referring to the long-term, enjoy each other’s company whilst you watch Who wants to be a millionaire every afternoon type of love. I was referring to the early stages of love. The honeymoon period. The first stage of the relationship. The stuff Hollywood rom-coms are made of (and end with). Romantic love.
And I loved watching it, because there’s nothing more observantly similar between someone falling in love and someone experiencing a mental illness. Love is, far and away, the healthiest and safest way to experience a neurosis.
When we’re “head over heels”, we’re typically pretty dysfunctional and distracted and disorganised and inclined to make absurdly optimistic assessments of the state of the world. Let alone the unrealistic judgments we can be inclined to make about the wonderful qualities amazingly combined in one person who has become the object of our affection.
Why do we do this? Because of the brain. Naturally.
Specific chemical substances such as dopamine, phenylethylamine, noradrenaline, oxytocin and serotonin, have been all found to play a role in the human experiences and behaviors that are associated with love. They function very similarly to the illicit substance methamphetamine, making us alert, excited, motivated and wanting to bond.
To start with, dopamine, which is created in the brain and adrenal glands, triggers our reward system and makes us feel good. At its core, dopamine is a key contributor to our sense of pleasure. Dopamine affects various organs, including the genitals and the release of testosterone, the sweat glands, and also the senses. Have you ever noticed that when you are in the early stages of lust or love, you sweat more? Or that the sky seems bluer? Dopamine, in this context of arousal, is partly responsible. As a consequence of dopamine being released, our mood and emotions are also influenced, leading to feelings of excitement, pleasure and happiness. Meanwhile, testosterone increases sexual desire, but also increases aggressive behaviour and behaviourally, may motivate us to pursue the object who is fueling this intense response.
After this step, the neurotransmitters noradrenaline and PEA (phenylethylamine) are activated leading to focused attention. We might start to ‘zero-in’ on the person we desire, and at the same time, often experience a feeling of euphoria. Noreadrenaline is a stimulant, so it can cause us to feel extra alert, may lead to difficulty sleeping and our attentional capacity is heightened. We may even be able to notice and remember the minutest of details about our partner-to-be. PEA is responsible for the feelings of giddiness, and may cause the loss of appetite. If the relationship doesn’t last, PEA levels fall and are partly responsible for the feelings of depression that can be experienced.
All of this forms a feedback loop, with a brain reward system becoming involved. This reward system is influenced by the central nervous system and the contents of the bloodstream, such as the level of the various neurotransmitters. The reward system sends chemical messages, via neurotransmitters, to various parts of the body, including the stomach, skin, genitals and other organs, which causes them to send messages back to the brain. To phrase it simplistically, if stimulation of the genitals feels good, for example, then the reward system receives this information and causes one to seek more of what was pleasurable. Interestingly, anticipation alone can cause a biological response and stimulate the reward system.
During the initial stages of love or lust, this reward system is stimulated through very simple means; a lover’s touch, seeing their photograph, or even just thinking about this person can increase elevated mood and focused attention. Fisher and colleagues (2005) found that when the brains of those who state they are passionately in love are scanned by an fMRI, the reward system is activated.
Where the relationship goes from here becomes increasingly complicated and more individualized. However, that powerful moment when we meet another person and feel energized and are immediately aware of our heart pounding – maybe not so much of an emotion as it is a motivational drive consequential of the brain’s reward system.
The next time someone you know starts to comment on the smell of the outdoors being more refreshing than usual, or you notice they grin when staring at a photograph of someone they are dating, enjoy the show and know that they are possibly falling in love. They’re probably having quite an exhilarating time.
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