For those of you who have experienced the roller coaster of love know all about the intense feelings and emotions that it brings with it. Did you know that love results from a complex combination of several chemicals released by the brain? In fact many of these chemicals create feelings in the body that mirror the effects of taking drugs such as cocaine. Furthermore, love can be just as addictive, if not more than some drugs. The American anthropologist with a Ph.D. in Physical Anthropology, is created the theory that posits that the human brain has evolved three core brain systems for mating and love:
- LUST - sex drive/libido
- ATTRACTION - early stages of intense love
- ATTACHMENT - deep feelings of union with a long term partner
In the course of her research, Fisher and her colleagues studied the brain circuitry of romantic love by fMRI-scanning the brains of forty-nine men and women:
- seventeen who had just fallen madly in love
- fifteen who had just been dumped
- seventeen who reported that they were still in love after an average of twenty-one years of marriage.
One of the central ideas to Fisher's theory is that romantic love is a drive that is stronger than the sex drive. As Fisher has said, "After all, if you casually ask someone to go to bed with you and they refuse, you don't slip into a depression, commit suicide or homicide -- but around the world people suffer terribly from romantic rejection."
So what's happening in your brain as you fall in love? Here is a look at a six step process for what chemically happens in peoples brains as they fall in love.
For any romantic love relationship, it generally starts out with lust - with physical attraction. Maybe you develop a crush on the barista at your local coffee shop, or perhaps you've got a thing for one of your neighbors ... point is, whenever you think about that person, you start to feel a little giddy. Why is that? It's because every time you think about that person, your brain releases dopamine - the "feel-good" hormone and neurotransmitter that is associated with euphoria. Dopamine is also associated with things such as gambling and drug addiction. Therefore, you tend to think of that person you have a crush on more and more - which releases more and more dopamine each time you think of your crush.
The initial stages of falling for someone activates your stress response, which increases the levels of adrenalin and cortisol in your body. This has the charming effect that when you unexpectedly bump into your new love, you start to sweat, your heart races and your mouth goes dry. In addition to pumping out more adrenalin into your body, your adrenal glands also add a rush of epinephrine, and norepinephrine, into your body which only adds to an increased level of excitement about your crush. Norepinephrine is especially key. Like dopamine, it makes us feel good—but it also makes us feel infatuated and obsessed. It’s our brain’s way of saying: keep going.
At this point your brain has released quite a cocktail of hormones throughout your body and you're hooked. You might noticed that all you want to do is to be around this person every minute of every day. Studies, such as those done by Helen Fisher, show that that the same part of your brain that activates when you’re addicted to cocaine activates when you’re in love. It’s called the limbic reward system. Your brain has decided now that love is essential and wants more. From an evolutionary standpoint, this response developed to help us procreate and raise offspring together. Did you know the love drive is stronger than the sex drive?
At this stage of the relationship your brain continues to release dopamine, to keep you craving the person that you love. Then, when the person you love is not around, you may feel like you’re in withdrawal, motivating you to see him or her again. As with any drug, however, the high has diminishing returns—which is why, after a few months, the rush can weaken and people can fall out of love. Unless, of course, they’ve become attached.
Have you ever been in a situation where you're falling for someone but can't see all the red flags that your friends are warning you about? Many of you might be able to relate to this, I know I sure can. This happens because —while other parts of the limbic reward system are being activated—the amygdala shuts down, according to brain scans, taking your good judgment with it.
The amygdala is a set of neurons that is located in the temporal lobe of the brain, and it plays a large role in how we respond to stimuli. The amygdala plays a key role in making judgment calls, recognizing fearful situations, and deciphering when someone is lying to us. When people fall in love, however, the amygdala shuts down—which clouds a people's judgment and causes the them to see their beloved through "rose-colored glasses".
If you spend a long enough time with the object of your affection, you eventually bond. The more people spend time with the ones they are romantically in love with, their brains start to release oxytocin, nicknamed “the love hormone.” This neuropeptide is produced in the hypothalamus and released into people's brains during times of intimacy—when mothers breastfeed their babies, for example, or when people orgasm. Studies have shown that oxytocin is key to fostering trust and commitment. Unlike the quick high of dopamine, oxytocin is subtler and sticks around longer, leading to a deeper attachment.
Over time, with the right effort, love can develop into deep companionship. Brain scans of people people who have been committed to each other for years show increased activity in the ventral pallidum. In this region of the brain the two chemicals associated with monogamy and deep attachment—oxytocin and vasopressin—can be found in large quantities. Brain scans also show that the limbic reward system does remain active during deep attachment as well—which means couples in this stage can continue to experience the rush of early courtship along with deep attachment.
For more on the chemistry behind love, check out this Ted Talk by Helen Fisher, where she explains in depth the chemistry not only behind falling in love, but also what happens when people break up as well.