February 2021

Crazy Little Thing Called Love: Making sense of the science

Author: Linda S. Hopkins

In the history of the English language, one four-letter word—L.O.V.E.—is perhaps the most powerful and most confounding. “I love you” is a phrase that can be hard to utter or easy to turn. When we say it to a lover, it means one thing. When we say it to a friend, it means something entirely different. We say it to our children, to our extended family members, and to our pets. Yet who among us can begin to define exactly what love is?

Is it that tingly feeling when you kiss someone for the first time? Is it the excitement of a lover’s embrace, the intensity of an orgasm, the afterglow of sex? Is it the natural bond that occurs between mother and child at birth? Is it the deep connection you share with a family member or close friend? Is it the giddy excitement when your dog greets you at the door or the warm affection you feel for the purring cat in your lap? Is it compassion for a fellow human or a creature in need?

The answer is yes. Love can be all of the above and more. We can love people, animals, even places, activities, and objects, all in different capacities and to different degrees in myriad ways. To figure out how and where these feelings originate, we look to science, with a most discerning eye toward the romantic version, which seems to be the most confusing and ill-defined.

Let’s get chemical
For centuries, people thought love arose from the heart, but it turns out love begins in the brain. You know the feeling: your heartbeat quickens, your palms get sweaty, butterflies flitter about in your belly. The euphoria is likened to being high, and with good reason. Research shows that when you’re falling in love, you really are in a mind-altered state.

While love never fits neatly into a box, it can be scientifically organized in three general categories: lust, attraction, and attachment, each directed by its own set of hormones. There is some overlap and intermingling but understanding the basic brain chemistry is a convenient place to begin.

Lust, largely fueled by the hormones testosterone and estrogen, is driven by the desire for sexual gratification and is based on our evolutionary need to reproduce. Caution! Hot potato! Don’t mistake lust for love; give a new relationship time before dreaming of a future together.

Attraction engages the brain’s reward circuitry, which partly explains why the first few weeks or months of a relationship can be so exhilarating. When we are attracted to someone, high levels of dopamine and a related hormone, norepinephrine, are released. Called the “neurochemicals of desire,” they are responsible for the starry-eyed bliss we associate with new love.

Attraction also causes a reduction in serotonin, a hormone known to influence appetite and mood. So, yes, you can be so lovestruck that you forget to eat. Interestingly, people who suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder also have low levels of serotonin, leading scientists to speculate that this chemical underlies the overpowering infatuation that characterizes the beginning stages of love. That obsessive checking to see whether he/she called or sent a text? Blame it on serotonin.

Enter phenylethylamine (PEA), which is an amine structurally related to amphetamine. PEA is found in trace amounts in our brains, where it acts as a neurotransmitter, releasing dopamine and producing an antidepressant effect. PEA causes the newly smitten to view the object of affection through a rose-colored lens, magnifying their virtues and obscuring any flaws. These effects wear off over time, usually within 12-18 months—another reason to extend a courtship before making a larger commitment.

Want more staying power? There’s a formula for that! It’s normal for the fires of passion to cool as a romantic relationship matures, replaced by neurochemicals that foster attachment and connection, namely oxytocin and vasopressin. Oxytocin, the “superglue” bonding hormone, is released during orgasm (as well as during childbirth and breastfeeding). This may be the reason why sex can bring couples closer. Along for the ride is vasopressin, which promotes pair bonding and faithfulness—important for establishing monogamy. And to keep things lively, while the dopamine factory slows production over time, it doesn’t completely shut down, assuring that the undercurrent of attraction lives on beyond the honeymoon.

For the record, lust and attraction are pretty much exclusive to romantic relationships. In addition to long-term coupling, attachment is the primary player in friendships, parental bonding, and other intimacies.

Hormones gone haywire
If this natural chemical cocktail sounds like a dream, beware, because the same ingredients can just as easily blow up the laboratory. For example, we can lust for or be attracted to someone with whom we’re not necessarily compatible or someone who is inappropriate for us. The problem with the chemicals is that they operate on a subconscious level, and so we rationalize what we feel. While blind love can be real, many people are in love with the idea of falling in love and let their emotions run wild. During the dizzying phase when a relationship is new, enjoy the feeling, but don’t trust it as a directive for the rest of your life. Recognize it for what it is: a chemical firestorm.

Along the same vein, our innate chemistry beakers are not always brewing up true love; meanwhile, hormones have been known to wreak havoc on our sensibilities. Sexual arousal can turn off regions of the brain that regulate critical thinking and rational behavior. Ever do something in the throes of passion that you later regretted? In short, that loving feeling often leads to stupid and embarrassing conduct.

As for dopamine, a little goes a long way, helping us to enjoy food, events, and relationships. But too much reliance on that natural high can lead to addiction. The same regions of the brain that light up when we’re feeling attraction light up when drug addicts take cocaine or when we binge eat sweets. Attraction to another person frequently mimics addiction and can create unhealthy emotional dependence. Worse yet, when a breakup occurs, withdrawal symptoms can render the lovelorn vulnerable to depression, anxiety, sleep disturbances, and poor decision-making.

The story is similar for oxytocin: too much of a good thing can be bad. Studies of recreational drugs such as MDMA and GHB show that oxytocin may be the hormone behind the feel-good, sociable effects these chemicals produce that cause the user to act recklessly. In romantic relationships, oxytocin is thought to be the force behind clingy behaviors and jealousy.

More than a feeling
It’s easy to see that chemistry plays a significant role in how and why we fall in love, and reviewing the science of lust, attraction and attachment can help us develop more realistic expectations. But perhaps we would have a clearer picture of love if we recognized that it is a feeling best expressed through action. If we truly love someone, it will be reflected in what we do, which often boils down to conscious decisions and choice.

Sixteen years ago, after my husband and I repeated our marriage vows, the minister gave us some simple but sage advice. He said, “When you wake up every morning, take a moment to think to yourself, ‘What can I do to make my partner’s day more pleasant?’ If you both make a habit of this, you will have a strong marriage.”

Although I sometimes get focused on my own needs and obligations when popping out of bed for the day, I have applied the pastor’s wisdom throughout most of my marriage and can attest to the fact that it works. The act of making my husband’s day doesn’t have to be a big deal, but it is a matter of keeping him top of mind and prioritizing his needs and wants; works both ways, of course. When we get in a relationship funk, it’s usually because one or both of us is preoccupied and has forgotten the small thoughtful gestures and pleasantries that make all the difference.

Choice comes into play as well when relationships turn less than rosy—when the person we love is sick, injured, or disabled; when they grow old and feeble or bald or fat; when they are tired and cranky or mad or sad; when they leave the toilet seat up, burn the toast, or make loud chewing noises…

When we love someone, we see that person differently. We begin to look beyond their appearance, their moods, their mistakes, and even their annoying habits. Quite frankly, life becomes more interesting and fulfilling when we seek the happiness, security, and well-being of another. Whether it’s a partner, a child, a friend, or a pet, love has the power to transform our lives.

One thing I’ve learned about love is that when we give it away, it almost always comes boomeranging back—not necessarily from the same source or in the same sense, but often in the most unexpected and surprising ways.
Love, like all our thoughts, emotions and behaviors, relies on complex physical processes in the brain. But to say that love is brain chemistry alone would be to discount the mysteries and the magic. We all have our own definitions, formed from our unique experiences and what we’ve learned from past and present relationships. In the end, only you can decide what love means.

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