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The science of falling in love

Posted on 02-12-16 in Emotion

Love is far more complex than first meets the eye. Our brains play a large role in the process of falling in love. Lucy L. Brown, Ph.D., clinical professor of neurology at New York’s Einstein College of Medicine, and Helen E. Fisher, Ph.D., biological anthropologist at Rutgers University and senior research fellow at Kinsley Institute, hypothesized that different brain areas and neurotransmitters (i.e., brain chemicals) evolved to target a specific aspect of mating, reproduction and parenting. Brown and Fisher believe that humans go through three phases when falling in love.

Infatuation stage: During the initial stage of falling in love, called the infatuation stage or lust, human motivation to pursue a preferred mating partner is mostly attributed to changes in sex hormones (i.e., androgens), namely testosterone and oestrogen, which fuel sexual cravings and desire for sexual gratification. Testosterone (i.e., the “male” sex hormone) and oestrogen (i.e., the “female” sex hormone) motivate humans to seek potential mating partners. The release of testosterone, in particular, boosts sexual urges and drives lust.

Attraction stage: The attraction stage of love can last anywhere from a few months to several years. Some people describe the initial stage of falling in love as being similar to a cocaine high. It is characterized by idealization, and intense cravings and emotions for another person. Early in romantic love, powerful feelings of attraction for a romantic partner are largely due to changes in the production of the following monoamine neurotransmitters (i.e., brain chemicals). In the attraction stage, the following neurotransmitters are involved:

  • Increased dopamine release in the nucleus accumbens and prefrontal cortex boosts feelings of pleasure and reward, energy, focus, euphoria and enjoyment, and motivates us to seek and maintain a relationship with a preferred romantic partner.
  • Similar to adrenaline, the adrenal gland increases norepinephrine, producing feelings of elation, nervousness, infatuation and obsession, and physical symptoms such as flushed skin, racing heart and sweaty palms, giving people a rush of excitement and motivating them to continue pursuing a romantic partner.
  • As people begin to fall in love, their levels of serotonin decrease. Serotonin is an important neurotransmitter in regulating mood, sexual desire and function, appetite, sleep, memory, social behavior and learning.
  • Increases in phenylethylamine enhance our physical and emotional energy, and trigger the release of dopamine and norepinephrine.

The brain’s reward system in love is important for producing these neurotransmitters and giving us the drive to find, pursue and maintain a relationship with a romantic partner, Brown and Fisher suggested.

Attachment stage: The attachment stage takes over after the attraction stage if people believe that a relationship is going to last. An attachment is a longer-lasting commitment and bond to another person. Two hormones are released by the nervous system during the attachment stage, both of which play a role in forming social attachments:

  • Oxytocin (“the love hormone”) is released by both sexes during orgasm and makes the romantic bond stronger, keeping people together and happier in marriage. Studies have shown that oxytocin helps foster trust and commitment to a romantic partner, which can lead to a deeper attachment.
  • Vasopressin is a hormone released after sex that is important for long-term commitment and helps strengthen attachments.

In addition, endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers, play a key role in the formation of long-term relationships. When endorphins are released during sex, physical contact and exercise, they boost a sense of well-being, peacefulness and security.

Psychologists suggest that it takes between 90 seconds and four minutes for people to decide whether they like someone based on body language, and the speed and tone of their voice. Initial attraction to a potential mate is highly driven by factors such as physical attractiveness, health, personality and pheromones. It is advantageous for humans to choose a mate with good genes that will be passed on to their children — people also want to choose a partner who has good reproductive potential and willingness to invest this potential into the children for the duration of childbearing and child rearing.

Falling in love involves a wide range of brain systems that have evolved to motivate the biological need to reproduce as well as satisfy emotional needs for love and connectedness. At any of these stages, brain chemicals are working hard to make love a pleasant and pleasurable experience. Love is to be the best feeling experienced by humans and the science behind love shows just why that is.

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About the author

Amanda Habermann is a writer for the Sovereign Health Group. A graduate of California Lutheran University, she received her M.S. in clinical psychology with an emphasis in psychiatric rehabilitation. She brings to the team her background in research, testing and assessment, diagnosis and recovery techniques. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at news@sovhealth.com.