The Science of Love

I love Bjork’s song about falling in love (“It’s oh so quiet“), the lyrics really describes the chaos involved. We hear talk of being madly in love and sometimes that is exactly the symptoms we express, so this Valentine’s Day I thought I’d take a look at the biological and neurological events behind it all. What is the science of falling in love?

photo credit: Hold me forever via photopin (license)
photo credit: Hold me forever via photopin (license)

Is love ruled by the heart or the brain?

According to a 2010 study entitled “The neuroimaging of love” 12 separate areas of the brain are involved in the process. These areas control the release of a number of chemicals that result in the biological responses of love. Our clear minded focus on the object of our desire, the flushes of our cheeks, the butterflies in our stomach and the fluttering of our heart… the result of hormones (such as testosterone and oestrogen) and neurotransmitters (such as dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, adrenaline and vasopressin).

Head over heels in love

That first flush of love that literally has you tripping over yourself, how does that work? The wonderful cocktail of biological chemicals that swamp the body as we fall in love literally make us light headed and dizzy. We exhibit a strong focus of thought, an increased tendency to take risks and a stiking increase in energy, stamina and motivation.

Madly in love

The activity in the brain during the early stages of love have been likened to those seen in certain mental illnesses. Sufferers of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), for example, exhibit enhanced brain activity in similar areas and experience reduced levels of serotonin (40% less) as do people in the first flush of love. Both tend towards single minded obsession on a particular object, in the case of the love struck, this being the object of their desire.

Love is the drug

It seems love really is THE drug, as the effect on the body during those early, heady days of love are similar to a hit of cocaine! Dopamine, released in larger quantities during the early stages of love, causes that drug like high, including the euphoria, the rapid heart beat and the sweaty palms. Likewise, falling out of love can be just as long and painful as kicking a chemical addiction.

As the biological anthropologist, Dr. Helen Fischer puts it “romantic love is one of the most addictive substances on Earth

Is there such thing as “love at first sight”?

Apparently it can take as little as one fifth of a second to fall in love!

What happens after the first flush?

The honeymoon period is said to last two to three months. The stages of falling in love can be broken down into three phases…

Lust, which is governed by the sex hormones testosterone and oestrogen

Attraction, controlled by the neurotransmitters dopamine, adrenalin and serotonin

Attachment, this is cemented by elevated doses of oxytocin and vasopressin

Once the heady stages of love start to subside the major “long term bonding” comes under the control of oxytocin and vasopressin. The higher levels of oxytocin (the cuddle hormone) are understandable, it is linked to the bonding process between mother and baby and helps with the let down of milk during breastfeeding. In general, the more physical and demonstrative the loving couple are, the more oxytocin is produced, strengthening the bond.

The role of vasopressin is a little more surprising. It is primarily linked with water retention and kidney activity and it was a study on prairie voles, of all things, that lead to the link between vasopressin and bonding of couples. It would seem that vasopressin is present in high levels in prairie mates, when it is clinically suppressed in the male prairie vole his interest in the female wanes and he stops protecting her from the advances of rival mates.

Keeping love alive 

Couples who are more physical and affectionate with each other are more likely to have a stronger, long term relationship. Staying positive about your partner also seems to play a vital role. Other Studies show that couples who actively engage in exciting and novel activities together have a better chance of staying together. So for your next “date night” check out your nearest sky diving or abseiling club!

Elderly couple in love (2)

Back to Bjork

Despite all this science to explain it, I still think that Bjork nails it with her description of falling in love, so I leave you with this… and whether you are in the quiet or the chaos of love, I hope you have a good Valentine’s Day.