The Chemistry of Love
The biological basis of why people fall in love.
How often have you heard people express “I love you from the bottom of my heart” or “I love you will all my heart”? Why is love first and foremost associated with this body organ? Does love really have anything to do with the mass of muscle that pumps blood all throughout your body? If you think yes, then there’s something you have to understand about how your body works to give you that feeling of being over the moon and infatuated with someone you consider special.
What is love, really?
Love is often defined as an intense feeling of deep affection. Love has many facets, but love when defined in the context of human beings is the feeling of strong or constant affection for a person. It is a form of attraction that includes sexual desire. It is felt by people who have a romantic relationship. But how do we come to ‘feel’ love? Why is it such a euphoric feeling that we want to stay in that state for a long time? Why do people yearn for it? Why is there a widespread affliction in human nature to love and be loved in return?
Why do people fall in love?
According to Dr. Helen Fisher, an anthropologist and well-known researcher from Rutgers University in New Jersey, USA, romantic love is the result of an evolution in three of the basic brain systems involved in reproduction. These included the sex drive, romantic love, and attachment. Human beings evolved to develop the sex drive, which leads them to look for partners to copulate with and maintain their existence. Romantic love evolved to allow people to seek out and focus their energy on just one person to pave way for conservation of time and energy. Lastly, attachment evolved to help couples stay together long enough to raise their children.
Love, initially, was nothing more than the force that brings people together to keep the Earth populated. Eventually, as evolution kicked in, it became more specialized. It no longer served its sole purpose in the survival of the human race. It has become this strong, intense emotion that promotes immense well-being and is often described as the greatest emotion one could ever feel. No wonder everyone is looking for it.
How does it happen?
The biological basis of love, aimed at explaining what really happens to your body when you are experiencing love, has been continuously studied by other sciences such as evolutionary psychology, evolutionary biology, anthropology, and neuroscience. Researchers and scientists have long been fascinated by this intense feeling and emotion felt by people, yet it is still not completely understood.
What they do know is that certain chemicals in the body, hormones and neurotransmitters, are involved in producing the euphoric feeling often associated with love. These chemicals, when triggered, are responsible for passionate love and long-term attachment. Neuroscientists have used scanning technology to map out the chemical changes that occur in the brain during courtship, the initial stage when people start to find themselves falling in love. Semir Zeki and Andreas Bartels, professors of neuro-aesthetics at University College, London explains that when you look at someone you are passionate about, some areas of the brain become active. These areas in the brain were associated with instinct and feelings of euphoria.
Furthermore, researchers have associated that initial giddiness of falling in love including racing heart, flushed skin, and sweaty palms with the brain chemicals being released. These are dopamine, norepinephrine, and phenylethylamine.
Studies have shown that dopamine production is increased in those who are in love— it serves as the key to experiences of pleasure and pain and has also been linked to desire, attraction, and euphoria. A surge of dopamine can cause acute feelings that make it hard for people to give up love. There may be a good cause to describe falling in love as “addictive” since taking opioid drugs such as cocaine have a similar effect on dopamine as love.
Norepinephrine, similar to adrenaline, produces the racing heart and excitement associated with seeing the person you are attracted to. According to Dr. Fisher, norepinephrine together with dopamine produce a sense of elation, intense energy, sleeplessness, craving, loss of appetite, and focused attention.
Phenylethylamine, naturally occurring in the brain and in some foods like chocolate, is a stimulant which further causes the release of norepinephrine and dopamine. Other hormones like serotonin also play a role. However, people who are in love were known to have lower levels of said hormone. This fall in serotonin levels has also been associated with people who have obsessive-compulsive disorder, which may explain why people in love tend to focus intently on the object of their affection and much less to anything else outside the relationship.
Do men and women fall in love differently?
These so-called “cocktail of love” is released by the body only when certain conditions are met. Men readily produce it more than women do, mainly because of the virtual nature of men. The process of attraction among men can be more instant, making it possible for the expression “love at first sight” quite plausible. For women, attraction may happen over time and not initially. This phenomenon may also further explain why even in the animal kingdom, males are most often the ones in pursuit of females and less often the other way around.
Men choose women on the basis of youth and beauty while women are attracted to men of status, power, and ambition, according to Dr. Fisher. These claims further strengthen the observation that men are generally visual in nature because they get attracted by what they see while women get attracted with what they experience.
Can you make someone fall in love for you?
Although love may be purely instinctive, the chemical and brain activity associated with falling in love may be triggered by certain experiences. New and exciting activities are known to increase the levels of phenylethylamine in the body, which in turn causes dopamine and norepinephrine levels to escalate. These hormones contribute to a sense of well-being and happiness. The more often you experience this with the object of your affection, the more they might feel the same way about you too.
Lust and love, is there a difference?
When you are attracted to more than one person at a time, it is considered lust. But when you find yourself obsessed with the thought of being with one person only, well, you may be truly in love. Lust is also more often associated with the desire to have sex with the other person that you are lusting for; however, feelings of lust generally dissipate after the act. But being in love gives you a sense of possessiveness over the other person and your romantic feelings for them do no disappear after having sex— they can even intensify. However, sex in a way, can actually trigger love because of the increased dopamine activity in the brain after reaching orgasm.
Does love truly last?
Having understood the chemical nature of falling in love, you might begin to wonder if the feeling truly last. What happens when your brain chemical activities cease to emulate that of a person who is in love? Would you still be in love then?
According to Dr. Fisher, the intense period of love can last one to three years. The feelings may then begin to subside. However, two people who are truly compatible find ways to renew the vigor of their relationship. That is why you need to really find the person who complements you because in the long run, love wouldn’t be the only glue holding your relationship together. This may also explain why some couples fall apart after a few years when the initial high of being in love has subsided and they are left to sort through their differences which was initially not apparent because of the overwhelming emotions they experienced in the first few phases of dating.