Breathlessness, joyfulness, the vitality of each moment, obsessive thinking – all of these can be characteristics of romantic love – AND, they can all be traced directly to activity in your brain.
Your brain in love is highly active and focused. When fMRI scans were taken of subjects experiencing romantic love looking at a photo of their beloved and then a photo of friends, the former experience led to activation in the subjects’ parts of the brain associated with significant dopamine. So when you’re in love, you have more dopamine, the so-called “feel good” neurotransmitter, coursing through your brain (Fisher 2005).
Also when you’re in love, other primitive areas of your brain “light up” (during fMRI scans) having to do with reward detection and expectation, and pleasure, focused attention and motivation to obtain rewards.
Dopamine triggers the reward circuit making love comparable to the euphoria felt with the use of alcohol or cocaine. One study at the University of California, San Francisco, found that male fruit flies that were sexually rejected drank four times as much alcohol as the male flies that had ‘gotten lucky’. The reward center was activated in each group but through different methods (Science 2012).
What may surprise you is the link between love and stress. Levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, increase while you fall in love. The increased cortisol is meant to help you during this period of “crisis”. When cortisol increases, the neurotransmitter, serotonin, which helps manage your mood, decreases. This results in the continuous obsessive thinking about the object of your affection and all of the anxiety of falling in love.
Many theories of love suggest that loves changes from passionate to compassionate, deep but no longer euphoric. However, a Stony Brook University study indicates that people can still be crazy in love after decades of marriage. The MRI scans revealed the same intensity of activity in dopamine-rich areas as found in the brains of couples newly in love. What can happen is that the stress goes away but the excitement remains.
Even though science can explain a great deal about love, it seems to me that there is more to love than what can be linked with neuroscience.
The mystery… The magic… Perhaps this is what Blaise Pascal meant by saying, “Love has reasons which reason cannot understand.”
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