Love on the brain: how romance affects our minds

By: Leah Volpe, Contributing Writer

Featured image courtesy of Dierk Schaefer.

Love is often described as “life’s greatest prize,” so what happens in our brain that causes our willingness to risk it all?

According to psychology professor Jared McGinley, there are a few discrete brain areas that are active and engaged when feeling the emotion of love, specifically the anterior lobe of our brain. Our posterior lobe is also engaged when releasing oxytocin, often called “the love hormone.”

Whenever we feel bonding with another person, our brain will simultaneously release oxytocin and dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with addiction or finding something rewarding.

“When you deal with insecurity and stress, you can be addicted to someone and experience withdrawal when they’re not around,” McGinley said. “Your brain would be wired to react this way.”

However, that feeling of bonding and need for your partner can quickly turn obsessive. One brain region, the ventral tegmental area (VTA), is a primal reward system that spreads dopamine to other areas of the brain.

The VTA becomes even more active when you are separated from the one you love, which leads to only craving them more. When the reality of losing that bond with your special someone hits, another brain region, the core of the nucleus accumbens, is engaged and begins to process the rewards and losses in the game of love, according to psychology professor Bryan Devan.

Romantic love can cause a similar reaction as the body has to food, sleep or water, because the body can see love as essential to our well-being. Because of the way we react and behave when we are experiencing this type of romantic love, it can be compared to an intense addiction, following through with stages of tolerance, withdrawals and relapse.

According to Lucy Brown, a brain anatomy specialist and professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, love is comparable to a cocaine addiction with similar symptoms of unpredictable behavior and lapse in judgement.

Love and highly addictive drugs like cocaine show similarities in their stimulatory effects. According to Brown, we experience a state of euphoria, and then it can all come crashing back down like a bad hangover.

One of the biggest challenges scientists and researchers face today is understanding the biology behind love and how deeply rooted it is within our brain. This task of discovery has been undertaken by Helen Fisher, who has been researching the anatomy and science behind love for years alongside Brown.

Throughout her research, Fisher has found that experiencing a cocaine-high and processing the effects of love include the same brain chemicals: massive amounts of dopamine and norepinephrine. Fisher argues that love is one of the most addictive substances on the earth and can exist in species beyond humans.

One species in particular proves that life-long bonding is possible. Prairie voles are a species whose monogamy separates them from almost all other mammals. Just like humans, they form a partnership after mating and may experience grief when their partner dies.

If an individual never has a strong bond with another human, it may have long term health effects with negative outcomes on the body. Without interaction, a person can be at risk for higher rates of cardiovascular diseases and early mortality rates.

According to McGinley, humans are primarily social creatures; even if all other needs are taken care of, humans are no good without social interaction.

When we bond to another person, our brain associates this person with positive feelings, which can lead you to become more pro-social with improved self-confidence. These feelings are activated by the sympathetic nervous system in your body associated with intense positive emotions.

Once you become attached to another person and feel as if you’ve won life’s greatest prize, it can be difficult to experience their absence. When rejected by the person you admire, the heart rate drops. When losing someone you love, the body goes through a stress response that can be prolonged.

Rejection or death of a partner increases inflammation in the brain, which can result in depression from the devastation of the separation.

Research conducted by Fisher and Brown may prove that love truly is the end-all-be-all for the human species. By scanning the brains of individuals who are heartbroken, freshly in love and married for 25 years, the experts were able to see that couples married for years still show the same pattern of brain activations as a couple who has recently fallen in love.

Fisher describes love as a two-fold concept. First, in order to be confident in ourselves, we crave love and attention from other people. Second, we want to be able to nurture and love someone else in order to achieve completeness.

Researchers like Brown and Fisher are still unfolding the mystery of the brain in love by conducting neuroimaging studies to see a closer look at how love can control our happiness.

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