What is love? It’s a hard enough question to contemplate, let alone answer. We all know what it feels like; flushed cheeks, clammy hands and a racing heartbeat are all sure fire signs that cupid’s arrow has struck home. But what about the science behind the emotion. How exactly is that loving feeling created, and just what are the physiological and psychological triggers behind it?…
Although research is still in its infancy, a number of hormones have been identified as key regulators in the development of love.
To begin with, the brain and adrenal glands begin to pump out prodigious amounts of dopamine, which enhances testosterone release. Dopamine itself acts on various organs, including the genitals and the sweat glands, to produce those physically embarrassing effects of attraction that we all know so well. It also influences the senses, causing a shift in mood and emotions, which leads to feelings of increased energy, excitement and happiness. Meanwhile, testosterone continues to bolster sexual desire.
Once the dopamine surge is well under way, there is a subsequent increase in the levels of the neurotransmitters norepinephrine and phenylethylamine (PEA). These help to produce a feeling of euphoria, whilst also focussing the individual’s attention and causing them to hone in on the object of their desire. The inability to sleep, often quoted as a side-effect of extreme love-sickness, is likely to represent a by-product of norepinephrine’s stimulatory effects, whilst PEA is responsible for feelings of giddiness and loss of appetite. Interestingly, if the infatuation doesn’t last, rapidly falling PEA levels are partly to blame for the resultant depression that is often experienced.
If the initial interest does progress to a more long-term relationship, a whole new raft of hormones become involved. Oxytocin, the powerful agent released by both men and women during orgasm, increases in the body’s circulation in response to physical intimacy. One of its effects is to boost trust, an important prerequisite for stable long-term relationships and the reason behind its unofficial moniker as ‘the love hormone’.
Vasopressin works alongside Oxytocin and is predominately released after sex. An unusual mediator of love, vasopressin (aka, anti-diuretic hormone) works predominately with the kidneys to regulate urination and thirst. It’s role in long-term relationships was only discovered when scientists examined the prairie vole.
However, when male prairie voles were given a drug that suppresses vasopressin, the bond with their partner immediately deteriorated. They completely lost their prior sense of devotion and ceased to defend their partner from the advances of new suitors.
The veritable soup of chemicals that we’ve just examined are, like all biological systems, an interconnected network of feedback loops, all dependent upon each other to exert their wider influence. This results in the formation of a reward system, with individuals deliberately seeking out activities that promote the release of associated hormones, in order to experience their positive effects.
As such, very simple stimulators, such as a lover’s touch or a photograph, are sufficient to promote an increase in mood and focussed attention. Indeed, research using fMRI has shown that the brains of those who are passionately in love display an activated reward system.
As well as making us feel positive, it seems that that being in love can fundamentally change the way we think.
Psychiatrist Dr Donatella Marazziti, advertised for twenty couples who’d been madly in love for less than six months. She wanted to see if the brain mechanisms that cause you to constantly think about your lover, were related to the brain mechanisms of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.
By analysing blood samples, Dr Marazitti discovered that serotonin levels of new lovers were equivalent to the low serotonin levels of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder patients; an approximate 40% decrease on the control group.
Amazingly, further studies have revealed that strong romantic feelings are also capable of masking physical pain.
Simply by gazing at a picture of their beloved, undergraduate students were able to significantly reduce their experience of pain. The study’s coauthor, Professor Arthur Aron, confirmed that this phenomenon was due to a love-induced activation of areas of the brain that are commonly targeted by pain-relieving drugs.
In fact, the intense activation of the brain’s reward areas can be likened to the effects of cocaine or a large lottery win.
The cocaine association is particularly interesting, given that the study also likened descriptions of passionate love to addiction, another behaviour known to be controlled and regulated by dopamine. Perhaps Robert Palmer was right…
If you began reading this hoping to find instructions on creating a working love potion, then do not despair. For whilst the secret to love cannot be imbibed, it does seem that it can be behaviourally stimulated.
Indeed, Professor Arun has identified three key behaviors to help improve people’s chances of falling in love. All you need to do is:
1) Find a complete stranger
2) Begin to reveal intimate details about your lives to each other for half an hour
3) Finish by simply starting deep into each other’s eyes without talking for four minutes.
Although it may sound bizarre, Arun found that many couples in his experiments reported deep levels of attraction following the exercise, and two even later got married.
So if you want to apply these teachings to the real world, then I wish you the very best of luck. But remember, with great power comes great responsibility…