If I were to describe a situation in which someone experienced a flood of dopamine and ocytocin, a drop in serotonin, and spikes in adrenaline and norepinephrine, all those brain chemicals going crazy might make you assume this person was overdosing on some kind of highly addictive drug.
You’d be right. The “drug” is called love and the “overdose” is often referred to as “the early stages of love.” The brain chemicals called neurotransmitters have everything to do with the very physical sensations that we all feel when falling in love.
The links among what our body experiences, our emotions, and our subsequent actions are all so intertwined that it would take someone with a PhD in psychology and behavioral science and an MD in neuroscience to sort it all out. However, we can shed some light on the reasons that the early stages of love can be problematic, and the reasons why the later stages of love can lead to a lifetime of satisfaction and fulfillment!
In the beginning:
The early stages of love can be indistinguishable from infatuation – almost entirely because of what is happening with brain chemistry. (Check out my earlier blog Is it Love or Infatuation?) Here’s what happens when you have met someone, sparks fly, eyes meet, tummy feels funny all the time and you suddenly feel your heart beating in your chest when you managed never to notice it before:
- Surge of dopamine. This hormone controls the reward-seeking center of the brain. It is associated with a feeling of euphoria, excitement, and (yes) addiction. Cocaine and love both manifest similarly in the dopamine receptors of the brain. Have you ever felt literally addicted to someone? In those early stages of love (or infatuation) it feels like that because the brain chemistry is that of addiction. Crazy, right?
- Rise in oxytocin. Oxytocin is the bonding hormone. Nursing a newborn causes it to surge in new mothers. It also floods your brain during orgasm. Result? Your brain is saying, this is your person! The hormone actually causes you to want to stick with this person. That intense feeling of closeness, trust, and bonding that comes from oxytocin during the early stages of love (and later stages too as we shall see) is hard to resist. Oxytocin can result in adverse behavior too, depending on the person. It can result in envy, jealousy, or suspicion, and in highly emotional and imaginative people can lead to stalking. Yikes.
- Drop in serotonin levels. At the beginning of love have you ever felt a little obsessive? You can’t stop thinking about someone? You feel anxious, jittery, and your stomach is always full of butterflies? Well there you go. Lowered amounts of serotonin is also seen in people with obsessive-compulsive disorder. So part of the normal brain chemistry when love is new is to be a little OCD, and that can be a problem… or not.
- Rise in adrenaline and norepinephrine. These hormones, classics during flight or fight situations, make your heart race, palms sweat, and mouth dry. So it stands to reason that when you see the object of your desire, in those early stages of love, you feel those very physical feelings. If we were facing down a T-Rex it would not be so pleasant, but when our heart races at the sight of our love object, it feels really good. And then we can’t fall asleep for 4 hours till the adrenaline and norepinephrine levels normalize! (Sleepless nights sound familiar when love is still oh-so new?) Interestingly, norepinephrine is also associated with higher levels of emotional dependency.
- Frontal cortex shuts down. Brain scans of besotted lovers actually show that the part of the brain responsible for making good decisions actually stops working. This is a dangerous place to be. When judgment centers are not functioning, people are willing to risk everything for the relationship. Your friends might be waving their arms and trying to get your attention but you don’t get it. What’s the problem?
- Amygdala and mid-temporal cortex go off-line. This is interesting as often during fight or flight (as when flooded with adrenaline) the amygdala is the only part of the brain that still works, but when we are in the early stages of love, even this part of the brain bails on us. The amygdala controls fear and the mid-temporal cortex controls negative emotions. So when they are silenced by our addiction to our love object, we are literally incapable of seeing the pitfalls that may be inherent in the situation. We can’t feel afraid of what might go wrong because the parts of our brain that take care of that for us are on strike.
Funnily enough, though all of the above sounds dreadful when explained scientifically, people LOVE the feeling of falling in love. All that adrenaline and the hormone surges and the feeling of butterflies, addiction, and obsession are so inextricably linked to something we all want – love – that we literally “fall” into it without question.
There is an amusing post making the rounds of social media these days. It reads: “The brain is a most outstanding organ. It works 24 hours a day 365 days a year from your birth right up till the day you fall in love.” Now we know why!
In the middle:
After “surviving” early love, we encounter a stage of romantic love that is less dramatic, but also a little less dangerous! This stage of love is regulated by the emotional center of the brain, the limbic system. Fortunately, serotonin levels normalize. The hormones that surged just a few months earlier, are also closer to normal. The result of some of these shifts in brain chemistry is a feeling of serenity. You are more likely to be in a good mood most of the time, and you are once again able to inhibit negative behaviors that you somehow were compelled to do just a bit earlier, like check your phone every 5 minutes for texts or messages, or drive past your loved one’s house at all hours of the day and night.
Love into posterity:
As human beings settle into long-term love, the kind that lasts for years, or even a lifetime, there are also brain chemicals involved. Studies have indicated for years that being in a committed relationship has long lists of health and psychological benefits to both parties.
In the brains of people in love for the long haul we find:
- Vasopressin. This pituitary hormone is linked to feelings of calm and security. It is also connected to partner protectiveness and fidelity—two things that are essential to the secure longevity of our love relationships.
- Oxytocin (again). This most glorious of hormones, as I mentioned before, makes emotional bonds strong. It is involved in trust-building and empathy as well. Oxytocin is present in any relationship where there is healthy attachment, whether between a mother and child, or two lovers.
Especially when navigating the earliest stage of love, it is not a bad idea to be armed with some good scientific awareness so you can make it through to the rewards of the next stages! But in the end, feelings of love and the “chemistry” of our attachments are, ultimately, mysterious.