Our Love Brains

Only today I was having a conversation with my friend who was seeking advice about why the person they are romantically entailed with is behaving in such a manner that’s out of character for them.  We all had different opinions, one of us was trying to convince her, he’s definitely into you, the other was adamant he wasn’t.  We all became engrossed in how can they behave like that, or why are they acting so differently to how we usually perceive them.  This made me think about our love brains and what is happening neurologically when we fall in love.

Love may be the most captivating secret of our minds science can ever begin to understand.

Most of us have experienced love, and some of us will have experienced heartache.  If we weren’t able to experience this beautiful sensation, we couldn’t have created some of the world’s most powerful music, art or literature.    We would also be missing out on one of the most profound facets of human existence.  Most articles we read about in magazines tell us what to do in love or how to keep our love interested. Disney’s traditional films have indoctrinated us to believe that if we are lucky enough to find the one to settle down with and get married too, we will live happily ever after.

Is love this all-pervading force that can dominate our lives, providing endless happiness?  Or is just our amazing brain chemistry that’s ironically been romanticised?

No matter what we learn about love, the brain or neuroscience, love is one of the most meaningful and powerful forces that surround us, and it can make us euphorically happy or more tragically catastrophically unhappy.

“How on earth are you ever going to explain in terms of chemistry and physics so important a biological phenomenon as first love?” —Albert Einstein

I once fell in love, I was a little bit indifferent to it at the beginning, happily coasting along in my life and smack it hit me like a bus had crashed into me.  I fell in love with him more times in a day than my heart could beat, I fell in love with him the way we fall in love with the night sky.  He was all I could think of, all I could imagine. I was addicted to him, to his words to his stories. What had happened to me?

The late Avicii wrote a song called ‘addicted to you’, well he wasn’t far wrong.  Love is addictive.

Studies have revealed there is an increase in central dopamine levels when we are falling for someone in.  When we are attracted to someone, it triggers activity in the part of the brain called the ventral tegmental area (VTA), which releases the dopamine neurotransmitter (the happy hormone).  This then floods our brain’s reward centres (the caudate nucleus and nucleus accumbens) and gives the person in love a high, which is similar to the effects of narcotics, and it is incredibly addictive.  Our brain’s in love also experiences an increase in the stress hormone (norepinephrine), which increases the heart rate and blood pressure, which is similar to the rush people who use cocaine experience.  This explains why we are so happy and contented in love, as we are essentially ‘high’.  This ‘love high’ can explain why it hurts so much when our loved ones break up with us because from high up in utopia it’s a long way crashing down to planet reality.

Dopamine also regulates the anticipation of reward; this means we are continually seeking out something that rewards us.  This explains why we go to great lengths when we are in love, as the reward becomes to see our beloved or to have their kiss.  I once sat on a bus for sixteen hours to watch a football game even though I don’t follow football at all, to spend time with the guy I fancied.  Don’t blame yourself for the irrationality of your behaviour when you are in love, blame your love brain and those neurotransmitters.

As well as dopamine increasing, there is a notable increase in noradrenaline when we’re in love. Noradrenaline influences the release of adrenaline, which is the neurotransmitter that triggers the flight or fight response, hence why people in love can come across as nervous and twitchy.

Our love brain also experiences a drop in the neurotransmitter serotonin, which helps us to control our feelings, anxiety, and well-being. When it drops, our sense of control decreases and we become obsessively fixated, especially on things that give us a taste of uncertainty and we can behave irrationally.  Love is the definition of unpredictability, so when Beyoncé is strutting her stuff, singing about ‘crazy in love’, she is pretty much right.

Another neurotransmitter involved in love is oxytocin, coined the ‘love hormone’.  It’s released when we hug, cuddle and kiss.  This is what makes us feel on top of the world when we are in love.  It makes us stronger, happier and confident.

The prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for our reasoning skills, command, and control centre drops into low gear when we’re in love. At the same time, the amygdala, a vital component of the brain’s threat-response system, also revs down. Both of these in a reduced function makes us more willing to take risks, and we can appear reckless. Our love brains make us think irrationally because these areas are zig-zagging our thoughts and not directing us in a straight line.

Love can be considered as a painkiller too.   Stanford University conducted a study where they showed people who reported to be in pain a picture of a loved one and 40% said their pain had reduced.  This analgesic effect is because our loved one has distracted the brain from pain.

Our remarkable brains can also explain online love.  We have powerful cortexes that have evolved to be incredibly social.  So this sensitivity to interpersonal communications means something as a DM across Instagram can be extremely rewarding.  We can establish their attitudes, likes and dislikes, their sense of humour and other particular things that attract us.  This allows us to build an image in our brains of that someone, and if it’s something we like a great deal, well why wouldn’t we fall in love with that person from something as simple as an Instagram conversation.

Falling in love with someone is hugely rewarding, it makes us feel on top of the world and can make us utterly ridiculously happy.  This is why our brains go to extreme lengths to keep us loving that person, even when it is no longer logical.  When our brain goes into love mode, and we end up in our prolonged sense of happiness, this loving relationship becomes an integral schema of our worlds.

There we have it, a short brain-based explanation of what happens when we fall in love.  Next time you see your friend acting differently around that cute person they fancy, or you are asking yourself why are on that stinking bus, remember it’s not our fault it’s our love brains.

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