“How on earth are you ever going to explain in terms of chemistry and physics so important a biological phenomenon as first love?”
By David DiSalvo, Contributor | Forbes
February is Cupid’s month, and what better time to explore some of the findings about love, sex and romance that neuroscience and psychology have uncovered over the last few years.
Einstein was correct – science will never clinically sterilize the wonderment of love (first or otherwise). But I think he’d also agree that it’s a mistake to confuse increased understanding with diminished meaning. No matter what we learn about love, it will continue to be one of the most meaningful and powerful forces on the planet, as it should be. With that disclaimer, let’s jump in.
Love is addictive.
Thinking about one’s beloved—particularly in new relationships—triggers activity in the ventral tegmental area (VTA) of the brain, which releases a flood of the neurotransmitter dopamine (the so-called “pleasure chemical”) into the brain’s reward (or pleasure) centers, the caudate nucleus and nucleus accumbens. This gives the lover a high not unlike the effect of narcotics, and it’s mighty addictive.
At the same time, the brain in love experiences an increase in the stress hormone norephinephrine, which increases heart rate and blood pressure, effects similar to those experienced by people using potent addictive stimulants like methamphetamine.
Love is obsessive.
The brain in love experiences a drop in the neurotransmitter serotonin.Serotonin provides a sense of being in control; it guards against the anxiety of uncertainty and instability. When it drops, our sense of control decreases and we become obsessively fixated on things that rattle our certainty and stability cages—and since love is by definition unpredictable, it’s a prime target for obsession. This is also why the term “crazy in love” isn’t too far off the truth.
Love is prone to recklessness.
The prefrontal cortex—our brain’s reasoning command and control center—drops into low gear when we’re in love. At the same time, the amygdala, a key component of the brain’s threat-response system, also revs down. The combination of these effects is a willingness to take more risks, even ones that would normally seem reckless to us in another state of mind. (For more on this, check out this PDF’d study.)
Love and lust can coexist in the brain—and not necessarily for the same person.
Love and lust appear to be separate but overlapping neural responses in the brain. They both produce a “high” and both are addictive, and they effect many of the same parts of the brain—but they are distinct enough that you can be in love with one person and in lust with another.
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