Your brain on love: chemicals in action

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Lily Tran, Feature Editor

Love is thought to be the most powerful force in the world. It’s supposed to be capable of providing hope for the hopeless, solace for the broken and light for the darkness. But love is more than just a feeling; it’s actually a series of chemical reactions.

Throughout the three main stages of love — from initial attraction to deep attachment — the brain releases chemicals like dopamine and oxytocin, activating the reward system and other parts of the brain.

“Emotions, such as love, are really the byproduct of chemical reactions that happen in our brain where certain neurotransmitter molecules [activate] receptors in certain brain circuits,” Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory researcher Doctor Larry Young said in a video.

People typically begin dating in their teenage years. When puberty takes effect, sex-hormones like estrogen and testosterone are released and increased which results in the growth and development of reproductive organs. Teenagers begin to view others less platonically and more romantically, subconsciously searching for potential mates. This physical change helps lead relationships to the first stage.

The first stage is attraction. Feelings of lust and euphoria typically accompany this stage. Dopamine, adrenaline and serotonin are neurotransmitters that are responsible for the excitement and happiness one feels for a crush or at the beginning of a relationship.

“When you get a crush and you start to date them, serotonin and dopamine [levels] spike, making you feel more excited and better and you just want to be with them,” psychology teacher Lana Gentry said. “You need that to start and continue a relationship.”

But there’s a reason some people have many fleeting crushes. The feelings they associate with “like” and “love” are temporary.

“Dopamine is more short term and in-the-moment,” science teacher Michael Heberle said.

The limbic reward system is also activated in this process, which causes a person to “crave” another in order to gain that chemically-induced “feel-good” feeling again. The reward system starts an addiction to one’s object of affection and releases more serotonin and dopamine when lovers see each other again — similar to how drug addicts feel when they experience a relapse after a temporary withdrawal.

“Parts of the reward system, like the one that activates when you’re eating chocolate, plays a role during this phase of love,” biological anthropologist Helen Fisher said in a Ted Talk. “Like chocolate, being head over heels in love is addictive.”

“[Love is] warm and happy and it’s indescribable feeling a connection with someone,” junior Jordin Fry said.

Next is the honeymoon stage. Lovers see the world through rose-colored glasses.

At this stage, typical good judgment and assessment of outside interactions are inhibited. In the frontal lobe, many decision-making parts like the amygdala shut down. The proverb “love is blind” turns out to be quite literal.

“The frontal lobe is in charge of helping you make decisions, weighing consequences and planning ahead,” Gentry said. The consequences of a clouded mind can be even worse for teenagers as teens’ brains are not completely developed.

The final step is attachment, where emotional bonds like trust, commitment and love form.

“When you romantically interact with someone and it’s a positive thing, the brain releases a neurostimulator called oxytocin,” Heberle said. “It’s called the ‘love drug’ or the ‘love hormone’ and it strengthens with time and with physical and mental interaction.”

Oxytocin is a major factor in strengthening bonds between people. It’s common in nursing mothers forming attachments and bonds to their infants. Intimacy and even hugging can release oxytocin. The neurotransmitter helps to solidify that final “in-love” feeling.

But even in this last stage of love, people are able to experience the “symptoms” of the other stages. Long lasting relationships can still feel the excited rush of dopamine or the adoration from serotonin.

“I always feel smiley and extra happy when I’m around my boyfriend,” junior Julieta Perez said about her two-year-long relationship.
The most enduring loves are also susceptible to early stage feelings.

“I still enjoy and get excited about spending time and going places and doing things with my husband,” social science teacher Kathryn Scott said about her 48-year-long marriage. “I really enjoy spending time alone with him. He makes me smile.”

Even though love is just a reaction of neurotransmitters flooding the brain, science still cannot tangibly compare to the way people humanly feel and interpret the chemical reactions that add up to love.