A certain someone enters the room and your heart rapidly flutters as your mind goes haywire. As you look around you, couples are littered everywhere and when you take a whiff of the air, the aromas of love surround you. Yes, the infamous day of love has arrived and we sought to understand the phenomenon that is ‘love’ and what it does to our brain and body.
Love is a powerful emotion experienced differently by every person. Emotions are controlled and regulated by the various chemical pathways in the brain. The major chemical pathways involved in falling or being in love are dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin and norepinephrine. Dopamine and norepinephrine are chemicals associated with feelings of excitement and euphoria. Oxytocin is responsible for the development of a bond between people whereas, serotonin is known to be a mood regulator in the pleasure centre of the brain that helps us feel stable.
Love is divided into three phases, the initial one being lust. This is where dopamine and norepinephrine thrive the most as this phase is primarily hormone driven. Love lowers the serotonin levels in the brain and so people feel the rush of dopamine more potently. With the mood regulator off-balance, people experience less emotional stability as they bounce between restlessness, happiness, a racing heart and exhilaration at the sight or thought of the object of affection. People tend to be more adventurous and even reckless. Perhaps, Beyoncé may have been onto something when she sang ‘Crazy in Love’.
Studies have shown how parts of the brain, like the pleasure centre, light up with activity on functional MRI (fMRI) scans when subjects are shown someone special to them. Scans of people in love have been compared to brain scans of people who use drugs like cocaine and researchers found that the same pathways were illuminated with activity. Love seems to be a drug to our systems explaining why new couples are ‘high on cloud nine’ with each other. How exciting!
The second phase is attraction where there is an overwhelming fixation on one’s partner. This leads to the last phase, attachment. This where the body builds a tolerance to pleasure stimulants and reduces the effects of the ‘love high’. Attachment is stimulated by oxytocin that allows deeper connection between people which is facilitated by physical contact like sexual activity, hugs and kisses. This in turn evokes security and contentment in relationships so some display of affection is not as overrated as we think!
There are many other hormones involved when looking at the effects love has on our actions and feelings. Cortisol, a stress hormone, is released by the adrenal gland to combat the fears people have when they feel vulnerable to the intimidating power of love which explains why people feel anxiety in the beginning of a relationship. Phenylethylamine is a hormone that creates infatuation for not only people but also things like chocolate.
Love takes quite the toll on our emotions as we switch between extremes but as it stabilises it truly is an interesting, unique feeling that every person experiences and enjoys; single or not. So go forth and happily revel in your own personal concoction of chemical pathways. Happy Valentine’s Day!
By Lela Pea, Editor