BY TAYLOR WADE
READING TIME: 8:24 MINUTES
Three Neural Systems That Drive Romantic Chemistry
There was something about him that made me immediately put him on a pedestal. He had a loud confidence – bordering on arrogance – that was alluring, and he was charismatic enough to attract fans of both sexes.
He liked to test your competence and was annoyingly never incorrect. I once stood with him for an hour as he argued the validity of religion with a Jehovah Witness. It was the first time I’d seen a Jehovah Witness walk away first. I found his non-wavering self-assurance extremely captivating.
It didn’t help that he was strikingly dapper and resembled a famous Hollywood actor. I felt starstruck every time I laid eyes on him. He had olive skin, a head full of dark chestnut hair, and sparkling hazel eyes.
I was falling for him, at first slowly, then hard and fast, and without trepidation. I never experienced love before, and therefore never experienced heartbreak. I had a clean slate from which I had no roadblocks or constructed walls, and nothing to encumber myself from falling head-over-heels. I could not stop thinking about him, and I succeeded in inserting his name into every conversation I had.
Nine years later, I sit here perplexed by love. How do we know if we’re falling in love? How can love be so consuming of our time, energy, and emotions? How can love drive us to lose sleep, lose our appetite, and become obsessed to the point that we literally think nonstop about the object of our affection?
Neuroscientists believe that basic human emotion and motivation arise from distinct systems of neural activity – networks that derive from mammalian precursors. Within this system of neural activity, there are three neurotransmitters that actively play a role in the brain chemistry of someone who is falling in love: norepinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin.
A Rush Of Norepinephrine
I know he’s minutes from knocking on my front door, and I will soon be face-to-face with the man I've been daydreaming of for weeks now. My cheeks flush, my heart races, my mouth goes dry, and my palms become so sweaty that I can hardly grasp a cup of water to quench my dry mouth!
Norepinephrine, a hormone similar to adrenaline, activates a stress response by increasing blood levels of adrenaline and cortisol. This increase in adrenaline and cortisol is what causes my symptoms to occur just minutes before I see him – my face looks wind chapped as if I was just skiing down Mount Everest and my hands develop an awkward perspiration problem. I feel like that girl that had Botox injections into her armpit, triggering the release of excessive sweat through the palms of her hands (another story).
Norepinephrine also increases memory for new stimuli, which explains why I remember all of the small minor details of my love, including how his right eye appears slightly smaller than his left – like he’s permanently squinting, or how one of his laugh lines is deeper than the other – appearing more as a dimple (I’ve had so many urges to stick my finger in it), or how his adorable puffy eyes in the morning almost makes his right eye the same size as his left.
A Shot Of Dopamine
As we enter month number two, it is official – I am obsessed. My sweaty palms and memory for detail have flourished into something else – I have an excessive amount of energy, sleeping only five hours as opposed to my usual eight, and I don’t have my normal appetite. I constantly feel like I’m on a natural high, with a permanent grin splattered across my face, and there’s no coming down.
This is due to a brain chemical (or neurotransmitter) called dopamine – the “feel-good chemical.”
Dopamine is responsible for the high we feel when we do something daring, like skydiving out of a plane or bungee jumping off a bridge, or the satisfaction we feel after we play our favorite sport or eat our favorite meal. It is also responsible for the euphoric feeling we get when using stimulating drugs like cocaine.
Dopamine plays a big role in reward-seeking activities. Animal studies show that rewards increase levels of the brain chemical, dopamine. This is what stimulates our desire and motivation to spend every waking moment with our love— to seek the rewarding feelings of love, ecstasy, and excitement. This leads us to dependency on that person for our emotional satisfaction. We become addicted to these feelings of love. Yes, love is highly addictive.
After all, it is dopamine that is prevalent in addictive-behaviors. Scientists have discovered that dopamine has the same effect on brain chemistry as cocaine. Cocaine acts by blocking the removal of dopamine from the synapse, which results in an accumulation of dopamine and an amplified signal to the receiving neurons. This is what causes the initial euphoria commonly reported by cocaine users. People in love also experience an increase in dopamine and therefore a similar euphoria.
Dopamine leads us to develop a fixation with our partner. This can ultimately lead to the idealization of our significant other— we only see things that we wish to see.
My ‘fixation’ with my love made me put blinders on and block out everything that would normally annoy the crap out of me. Chewing with his mouth open? Endearing. Raising his voice during an argument? Sexy. Walking in on me while I’m using his bathroom? Okay, I hated that, but I still found it hilarious because he would bring Maggie Mae (his dog) and sit on the bathtub saying Maggie had something to say to me (he knew this both annoyed and embarrassed me, hence his predilection toward doing so).
Dopamine is also responsible for what drives us into mania, anxiety, and fear when we think our romance is in jeopardy. When our emotional satisfaction is threatened, we desperately try to win back the object of our love and stabilize our well-being.
Keeping The Love Alive
Dopamine is most prevalent in the beginning ‘attraction’ stage of a relationship, when everything is new and exciting. It is a natural occurrence for the novelty to wear off as the relationship progresses into the third and final ‘attachment’ phase. However, couples can prolong the rush of dopamine by taking on novel activities together (learn a new skill, try a new sport, or visit a new city, for example).
The Final & Most Important Ingredient: Serotonin
Finally, we reach the third neurotransmitter responsible for this crazy addiction called love – serotonin.
He consumes every waking moment of my thoughts, and butterflies flutter inside my stomach just at the idea of seeing him again. I sit down at my laptop multiple times to attempt a work assignment, yet I’m distracted by images of his sparkling hazel eyes, or how he looked in his suit when he brought me flowers today. Damnit, if I could only concentrate for one hour!!! It is month number three.
Serotonin is the key culprit for obsessive thinking about our beloved.
Research shows that people in love have the same levels of serotonin that are found in people suffering from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. This would explain why serotonin is linked with obsessive thinking about our beloved.
A team of Italian scientists, under the leadership of Dr. Donatella Marazziti, a psychiatrist at the University of Pisa, took blood samples from twenty people “in love,” twenty people suffering from the compulsive disorder, and twenty people who were not in love and had no psychiatric problems. They found that people suffering from obsessive compulsive disorders and people who were in love both had 40 percent less serotonin than the group of people who were not in love and did not have any psychiatric problems.
Interestingly, the people who were in love were tested again twelve months later, and found that after the initial intensity of love faded, their serotonin levels returned back to normal.
Doctors now treat OCD with SSRI’s (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors)— Prozac or Zoloft— to elevate serotonin levels. Like with any drug, serotonin-enhancing drugs have surprising side effects. Dr. Helen Fisher, Biological Anthropologist, says, “Like drugs that blur your vision, serotonin-enhancing medications can potentially blur a woman’s ability to evaluate mating partners, to fall in love, and to sustain an enduring partnership.”
In one case study, led by Dr. Helen Fisher, a 35-year old woman was prescribed serotonin-enhancing medication after suffering from depression and anxiety. Little did she know, it will affect her whole marriage. Her libido diminished, she was unable to orgasm, and she ultimately decided this meant she no longer loved her husband, and filed for divorced. However, when she cycled off the medication, she realized the root cause, and reunited with her husband. This shows you how powerful serotonin can be in relationships.
So powerful, in fact, that I would say serotonin is the most important component of falling in love. It is responsible for literally changing the way you think. It diverts your mind and bounds you to think of your love and nothing else, setting you on a path with the end goal being to fall in love.
Love electrifies neurotransmitters in the mind and consumes the senses– norepinephrine floods your system, giving you bouts of hyper-focused energy, flushing your cheeks, and excreting sweat from your externalities; dopamine sends waves of ecstasy and excitement throughout your body; and serotonin levels throw you into an obsessive compulsive state of thinking of your beloved...
Nine years after experiencing this kind of intense, overwhelming love (as first loves always are), I realize how risky love is – it’s highly addictive, makes you temporarily insane, and produces dramatic effects similar to jumping out of a plane!
However, as other drugs warn you to read the fine print and proceed with caution, my recommendation with love is to allow yourself to be consumed by love—because in the end, isn’t love worth the risk?
Davidson, R.J. Complexities in the search for emotion-specific physiology. In P. Ekman and R.J. Davidson (eds.), The Nature of Emotion: Fundamental Questions. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. Print.
Webster, Richard. Soul Mates: Understanding Relationships Across Time. Woodbury: Llewellyn Publications, 2004. Print.
Fisher, Helen. Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love. New York: Henry Holt Company, 2004. Print.
Fisher, Helen, Arthur Aron, Debra Mashek, G Strong, Haifang Li, and Lucy Brown. “Defining the Brain Systems of Lust, Romantic Attraction, and Attachment.” Archives of Sexual Behavior, 31.5 (2002): P 413-419. Print.
Fisher, Helen, and J. Anderson Thomson, Jr. “Lust, Romance, Attachment: Do the Side Effects of Serotonin-Enhancing Antidepressants Jeopardize Romantic Love, Marriage, and Fertility?” Evolutionary Cognitive Neuroscience. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 207. P 245-283. Print.
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