It’s that time of year again, hearts and flowers and reminders of love are plastered on the walls of your favorite coffee shop, stores are filled with signs telling you to show your love with a $300 bouquet of roses, and pink and red cards are front and center at the grocery store reminding you it is the month for Love; so it feels only fitting to have an article on the topic of love this month.
Is love something you can see? Or measure? Is there a way for us to “show” what love is or how it works? Asking someone what love is can be subjective, for some they will describe love as a “feeling”, butterflies in their stomach, dizzy, sweaty palms- pretty much the same feelings as having the flu (maybe this is where the term “love sick” comes in…) For others Love is an action, it is something you do and work at constantly. If we were to expand the question to “where” they feel love, you may get responses like “my heart, my stomach, my soul”, but I would almost guarantee you that no one you ask will tell you they feel love in their brain; so would it surprise you to learn that love does have a neurological component?
Love and the brain, how in the world are these two connected? A study done at Harvard medical school showed that in an fMRI the areas of our brain associated with dopamine (our “feel good” neurotransmitter) were activated during romantic love as well as a part directly linked to dopamine- the ventral tegmental which is known as the brains reward circuit. In other words, love makes us literally feel good and motivates us to pursue more of that feeling. The other parts of our brain that are linked to behavior that induce pleasure are the amygdala, the hippocampus, and the prefrontal cortex- they are especially triggered by things such as sex, food, alcohol and drug use. Yup, the same reaction our brain has to things like alcohol and drugs is the same reaction our brain has to sex and feelings of love. When we fall in love our brain is flooded with chemicals associated to the reward system of the brain- this leads to a physical response (remember the whole sweaty palms, racing heart feelings people describe?) it also leads to feelings of passion and even levels of stress or anxiety.
Anyone who is a parent may have heard of the hormone oxytocin- it is a hormone released during pregnancy and nursing, it is often referred to as the love hormone or the attachment hormone; it can bring a feeling of attachment or calmness. This oxytocin is also released during sexual or romantic encounters, which is why we can feel attached to someone after being intimate with them- so when people try and tell you that they can have casual sex without getting attached in some way? Neurologically impossible.
So what happens after our dopamine rush fades? Enter Vasopressin, this is linked to what we would call long-term love, it is directly associated with the parts of our brain that create a monogamous relationship- so as passionate love fades, long term attachment grows.
So how does this understand of love and the brain help us? Well, if our brain can create neural pathways that impact how we think, act, feel and respond and we have the capacity to create new neural pathways- then we have the ability to rekindle old feelings of passion in a relationship even after years of being together. I have talked with so many people in and out of relationships who fear not being in the “early passionate stage” with their significant other, our brain shows that not only does our brain have the capacity to deepen our commitment and attachment to one another, but our brain is so fantastic that we can actually reunite the neural pathways associated with our passion for one another, so those couples that tell you they are more in love than ever after 30 years of marriage? Believe them!