As the weathers get colder, the season many people call the “relationship season” is near us waiting with either our partners or our 2000s rom coms that is just as effective when it comes to feel that compassion. Love, a feeling that has been the main subject of many songs, films, poems, fights, smiles, cries, looks, breakups, and makeups. It is a part of our human experience that we fall in and out of love romantically until, if there is one, we find our person. Yes, love is definitely an abstract concept that does not need a rational explanation but scientists did what they had to do and came up with many of them. Here is an episode of “Why does neuroscience have all the answers to all the questions?” and the part “The Neuroscience of Love”. Let’s take a look at what happens to your brain when you see your partner, or your hallway crush, and will science be able to explain our very interesting behaviors when it comes to this ultimate feeling?
Let’s start with what love is originally associated with within our brains and the answers are the three major neuromodulators: dopamine, oxytocin, and vasopressin (Castro 2014). For a brief review, we can say that dopamine is related to pleasure and reward while oxytocin and vasopressin are related to bonding and close attachments. Research has shown that when we look at our loved ones our reward system gets overwhelmed with dopamine, thus we can say that we are actually doing ourselves a favor, giving ourselves a reward that we seek regularly when we are not around them. This rush of “euphoria” exhibits some sort of physical reactions too like heart racing, sweaty palms, etc. In the cases of oxytocin and vasopressin, they are strongly connected with intimacy which makes you and your partner get attached to each other in a calm and secure way. The difference between the release of dopamine and the other two is that dopamine is a rush that will probably be experienced in any type of love-involved relationship but vasopressin etc. is more likely to be heavily secreted in a more long-term, stable, and secure relationship that creates an evident atmosphere for a sense of belonging to each other.
The activity of the neuromodulators is really significant but one thing that really stuck out to the neuroscientists was the parts of the brain that were not activated when they hypothetically should have been activated. Starting off with the amygdala, which is often referred to as our center of emotion, showed a decrease in activity in the studies involving romantic feelings. This is evidence of why we feel safe with the person we love. The amygdala is also initially responsible for fear and anger meaning that the deactivation of it points out in the direction of the reason for the secure feeling we have when we are with them.
We are also familiar with the phrase “love is blind”. Another outcome of the research was, well, it actually is blind. As Taylor Swift said, “I don’t want to look at anything now that I’ve seen you” in her song Daylight we tend to not see the so-called “flaws” of the person because of the decreased activation of the frontal cortex (Schwartz 2015). The frontal cortex is heavily associated with judgment thus this means that we approach our loved ones with a judgment-free attitude which helps us focus on their wonderful self as it is.
Lastly, what is the biology of that long long long-lasting love? We hear about many marriages that are still going strong and in other words “like the first day”. These strong connections must have been strengthened with empirical evidence beneath them, thankfully they are. So, initially, our body welcomes the feeling of love with the rise of cortisol which is the stress hormone. We deal with it like it is a stressor. However, after a while, the stress levels go down. As Schwartz states “The passion is still there, but the stress of it is gone”. While the reward circuit with the neuromodulators stays activated during the journey, without the stress the relationships can work smoothly for a long period of time.
While finishing, it is important to add that this of course does not explain every single aspect of such a complicated concept as love which is still being researched in many topics. Love is a beautiful thing that our strong feeling for a person can be observed anatomically. Despite how wrenching it can be sometimes, the human experience has a lot of amazing parts with its ups and downs that it is impossible for it to be a research topic in sciences. With interdisciplinary research like this, we continue to have an idea of what we are going through which is really significant for further research.
Castro, Giovanna. "The Neuroscience of Love." Emotion, Brain, and Behavior Laboratory, 8 Dec. 2014, sites.tufts.edu/emotiononthebrain/2014/12/08/the-neuroscience-of-love/.
Macpherson, Frankie. "This is your brain on love: the beautiful neuroscience behind all romance." BBC Science Focus, 12 Feb. 2021, www.sciencefocus.com/the-human-body/how-love-changes-your-brain/.
Schwartz, Richard. "Love and the Brain." Harvard Medical School, Apr. 2015, hms.harvard.edu/news-events/publications-archive/brain/love-brain.