You might have often heard people say that the brain is the most important organ of love. Science tends to agree. While falling in love might move you in unfathomably mysterious ways, researchers have a very good idea as to what is actually happening to the brain. Being in love opens a floodgate of hormones and chemicals in the brain which produces feelings of pleasure, followed by obsession and emotional attachment. Let’s look at the way love affects the brain:
Hormones go haywire – Neuroscientists broadly divide amour into three distinct stages: lust, attraction and attachment. During the phase of lust, hormones flood your body creating feelings of acute desire. Norepinephrine and adrenaline make your palms sweat and heart race, while the release of dopamine triggers euphoric feelings. Dopamine is the chemical that is released in response to pleasurable stimulus, like taking drugs, which would go some way to explain the lovers’ high.
Feels like a drug and works like one – But let’s take a step back. Did you know that looking at an attractive face activates the same area in your brain that painkillers like morphine do: the opioid system. This system is responsible for feelings of “liking”. A recent study asked male participants to rate the photograph of women after giving them a small dose of morphine. It came as no surprise that men who were injected with morphine rated the photographs higher compared to men who weren’t given any. This strongly suggests that the opioid system is primed to discern attractiveness.
Makes your blood pump – The blood flow to the pleasure center of the brain, nucleus accumbens, increases when you are in love. Magnetic resonance imaging scans show the region lighting up in people who are in love. The increase in blood flow takes place during the attraction phase, which is usually when partners start getting fixated on each other.
Obsessive compulsive symptoms – Being in love causes the serotonin levels to drop in your brain, which is a common attribute of people who suffer from OCD. It goes a long way in explaining the single-minded attention shown by lovers towards their object of devotion. It also causes people to turn a blind eye to the undesirable traits in their partner during the early stages, making them focus only on their good qualities. They weren’t kidding around when they said “love is blind”.
Hormones lead to attachment – The body builds up tolerance to the pleasurable chemicals after people have been in love for a while. It marks the beginning of the attachment phase, during which the hormones vasopressin and oxytocin permeate the brain and create feelings of security and well-being.
Are men and women similar?
There has been a lot to do about the differences between men and women. Venus, Mars, stuff like that. If we are so different, it should show in our brains as well. The truth is, if you would put a male and female brain next to eachother, with the naked eye it would be almost impossible to tell which is which.
This however doesn’t mean we’re the same. The main difference is not in the gear, but how we use it. Depending on whether we’re a man or a woman, our brain will activate sets of hormones in various quantities to regulate our body, which will in turn highly affect the way we interact with our surroundings. Both men and women have the typical male and female hormones like testosterone and estrogen. It’s the quantities that will differ and impact other chemicals.
- Men for example produce 10 times more testosterone than women. Which explains the higher sex drive and risk-taking, just to name two.
- Or oxytocin, the love hormone. Estrogen will reinforce the effects of oxytocin, leading to a stronger need for touching, affection and bonding in women.
- There’s also Vasopressin. Both men and women generate equal amounts of it, but its effects are reinforced by testosterone, with effects on social behavior, pair bonding, and sexual motivation.
I could go on, but I guess I made my point. From a brains’ perspective we are all equal. It’s the delicate chemical soup of hormones and neurotransmitters that keeps things interesting.
Love is like a raging bull in the china shop of our chemistry… There’s no reasoning it, and we might even get hurt. Eventually, it will calm down, and looking back at it we’ll have to admit: “boy, what a ride….”