Love on the Brain

Some find it complicated, others find it elusive, and still others call it a matter of the heart.  George Burns said it is much like a backache. You can't see it but you know it's there. And back in 1993, Haddaway put the eternal question to music.  What is love? 

As it turns out, love lives in brain – and it’s much simpler and much more complex than you might think. According to a team of scientists at Rutgers University, romantic love can be distilled down into lust, attraction, and attachment. Each is characterized by its own set of hormones stemming from the brain. 

Lust is driven by the basic human desire for sexual gratification. The hypothalamus plays a big role in lust as it stimulates the production of the sex hormones testosterone and estrogen. While we often think of  these chemicals as “male” and “female,” testosterone increases libido in most of us.

Attraction activates the reward center which explains the excitement we feel when we meet that guy or girl who makes us swoon. Dopamine, also produced by the hypothalamus, is released when we do things that feel good to us. High levels of dopamine and its close cousin, norepinephrine, are released when we feel a strong sense of attraction. These chemicals make us giddy, energetic, and euphoric. Brain scans of people in love have actually shown that the reward centers of the brain light up like Christmas trees when people are shown a photo of someone they are intensely attracted to compared to someone for whom they have neutral feelings like a family member or neighbor.

In contrast to lust and attraction, which largely define romantic relationships, we feel a sense of attachment with friends, family members and even colleagues.  Because we’re wired to connect, this attachment is a basic human need. The primary hormone released when we feel attachment are oxytocin and vasopressin.  Like dopamine, oxytocin is also produced by the hypothalamus and released during sex, but the biggest surge happens during breastfeeding, and childbirth – all bonding behaviors. Vasopressin is linked to behavior that nurtures long-term, monogamous relationships. The differences in these two hormones may explain why passionate love fades as attachment grows stronger.

And here’s one more little nugget for you…  Love can make us dumb. Have you ever been head over heels in love and thought, “What was I thinking?” Sexual arousal appears to put parts of the prefrontal cortex on hold.   This is the region that regulate critical thinking, self-awareness, and rational behavior.


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