We have all heard about the “look of love” but love has a lot more to do with the brain than the eyes. To some, love seems mysterious – people fall in love in mysterious ways. There was song from the 90’s, Love Moves in Mysterious Ways. But science clearly provides an explanation. When a person is falling in love with another individual, their brain gets flooded with hormones and chemicals that generate feelings of pleasure, attachment and obsession. So, what does being in love do to the brain?
When someone is in love for the first time, their brain experiences a certain hormonal rush. Oxytocin, also called the “love hormone”; dopamine, or the “pleasure hormone”; and testosterone and estrogen, the sex hormones are the ones that get activated. Other hormones, such as adrenaline, cause the heart to beat faster. Levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, also increase during this stage. As cortisol levels go up, neurotransmitter serotonin levels start to deplete.
Increased dopamine concentrations in the brain are linked with a relatively unique or novel environment. Increased dopamine levels are also linked with heightened motivation, attention and objective-directed behaviors. These parallels indicate that dopamine levels are going up in the person as they focus their attention on a beloved.
Falling in love could lead to obsessive thoughts and an intense desire to spend as much time possible with the person one is in love with. And the person feels like they are addicted to the other person. Neuroscience research studies have found that falling in love with another individual activates the same part of the brain that cocaine addiction triggers. Romantic love could activate the opioid system of the human brain. And when a love relationship goes wrong or it comes to an end abruptly, there is a major risk of emotional distress and depression for both or one of the individuals involved.
People who have been in romantic relationships could know how distracting the feeling of love could be. Besides major changes in attention and emotion, passionate love also reduces cognitive control. However, the same passionate love leads to enhanced attention toward the beloved. Many people have reported that they expend 85 percent of the time they’re awake thinking about their beloved.
Serotonin levels dip when a person falls in love. And this depletion of serotonin precipitates intrusive, vexingly preoccupying thoughts. When the link between cognitive control and passionate control was examined among a group of students who recently were embroiled in a passionate relationship, it was deduced that the increased intensity of passionate love correlated with their reduced cognitive control efficiency.
A romantic relationship activates the human brain’s emotion and empathy-processing centers. It also makes the individual less self-focused. Falling in love, like meditation, increases the brain’s grey matter volume, which is linked with emotion processing. However, this empathy is a lot more toward the person one is in love with and not necessarily for other people around them. When in love, a person would be able to feel the pain of their romantic interest a lot more earnestly than anybody else and will also willingly forgo anything for the other person.
The impact love has on the human brain varies with the actual stage of love the concerned person is in. MRI scans can help accurately ascertain the stage of passionate or romantic love the individual is in, based on their cerebral activities. If someone has recently fallen in love, their brain’s reward center gets activated since it’s experiencing a significant amount of pleasure. This also produces a variety of emotional and physical responses, such as racing hearts, flushed cheeks, sweaty palms and feelings of anxiety and passion. The reward center experiences a decline if the person in love breaks up with the other person, causing a dip in the associated pleasure. At this stage, there is also a sharp reduction in functional connectivity and activity.
With everlasting love, people invariably do not fall out of love and stay connected with the individual for the rest of their life. This explains why some couples – who fell in love early in life – remain in love even during their 60s, 70s, and beyond. According to a 2011 study, certain regions of the brain among happily, long-time married couples exhibit similar activity. When one of the two is not around, the other person feels irritable or restless. They may resent friends and family even though they spend pretty much all their free time together. When love is in the air, things look beautiful, everywhere you look. Close your eyes and think back to Barry White signing Love Is in The Air or google it!