from the lab

Your Brain on Love

For the lovebirds and hopeless romantics out there -- this one’s for you. Have you ever thought about what happens to your brain when you find that special someone? Turns out, the brain is more involved in all things L-O-V-E than you might think. Today on Brain Waves, we’re decoding the brain-love connection just in time for Valentine’s Day.

Your Brain and Butterflies: The Beginning of Love

Ever wonder what’s causing your stomach to be in knots when you see someone you’re interested in? When you find someone attractive, you’ve identified something “desirable” in your environment, which results in an increase in the neurotransmitter dopamine. You then become more focused which raises the levels of the hormone norepinephrine, which can result in a nervous feeling — responsible for the pitter-patter you feel in the heart. The reason you feel those butterflies specifically in your stomach is because after seeing someone special, your brain activates the vagus nerve that goes from the brain to your gut, giving your body an immediate physiological response.

Your Brain and Being Love-Struck: The Honeymoon Phase

During the beginning stages of love, the so-called “honeymoon” or “puppy love” stages, are highly impacted by our reward-circuits in our brains. When we begin to fall in love, it can be stressful, exciting, nerve-wracking, and passionate all at the same time. Much of this is due to the chemicals in these reward circuits — the pleasure we feel as we fall in love gives us a rush of dopamine, the neurotransmitter responsible for much of the activity in our reward system. This is why the earliest stages of love can feel so euphoric and somewhat addictive.

These early stages of romance are also responsible for increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol in our bodies — which really isn’t too surprising given the nerves associated with meeting someone new and beginning to build a connection. However, sometimes these higher levels of cortisol can cause us to lose sight on other happenings around us. This is because when cortisol levels rise, levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin lower, which can result in preoccupying thoughts of love that are linked with obsessive-compulsive behaviors (what we know as infatuation). Also feeding into the obsessive-compulsive tendencies that are associated with falling in love is the rushing of blood that lights up the pleasure center of the brain. Neuroscientists have even linked passionate love with the intense changes in emotion we feel that results in reduced cognitive control — which is why when we’re in the early parts of romance, we might find it hard to think about anything other than our partner.

Falling in love gives us a rollercoaster of emotions, butterflies, and to a certain extent — infatuation. It turns out, these matters of the heart are much more tied to the brain than we often realize. But what happens when we move past the beginning stages of love?

Your Brain and True Love: Compassionate Love

As love develops and the early phases of infatuation pass, our cortisol and serotonin levels return to normal (usually within one to two years). Love then transitions from being the source of stress into what protects us from stress, as the support of a partner helps us cope and manage with everyday challenges we might face.

What does increase during the security of relationships, however, is levels of the so-called “love hormone,” oxytocin. We experience rushes of oxytocin from hugging, cuddling, and kissing someone we love, which in turn reduces every day stress and increases our feelings of trust and security. With oxytocin, we experience feelings of contentment and bonding. Love can actually help our ability to process emotions and strengthen our empathy.

While the beginnings of love are filled with nervousness and excitement, this is not actually resembled in true love. When we are in healthy relationships, our bodies should remain calm and free of jitters for the most part. Many psychologists have proposed that there’s an unavoidable shift over time from passionate love to what is known as compassionate love. Compassionate love is not as euphoric or nerve-inducing as passionate love, but is deeper and associated with more feelings of contentment and security.

The process of love is much more scientific than what appears at first glance. Next time you meet someone and feel a rush of butterflies – chalk it up to your vagus nerve!  

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