The Chemistry Of Love: What Happens To Our Brains When We're In Love?
When we are in love, our brain produces chemicals such as dopamine, oxytocin and others, which are responsible for our emotions.
Expressions associated with the experience of love such as "butterflies in the stomach", "at first sight" or "love makes you blind" are not only poetic inventions, but have scientific confirmation. The emotions and physiological symptoms associated with falling in love are in fact triggered by brain mechanisms . We see the chemicals, called neurotransmitters, triggered by our brains when we are in love.
What is falling in love, from a chemical point of view?
Falling in love brings with it a set of complex emotions , from euphoria to stress, and various effects on our body , from sweating to a closed stomach. Let's see which are the main molecules involved.
Dopamine and norepinephrine
Responsible for the feeling of euphoria are dopamine and norepinephrine , chemical substances produced by our brain when we experience a gratification experience; they make us feel happy , increase the heart rate and regulate digestion. These molecules are neurotransmitters and are released not only in the romantic sphere, but also in other contexts: when we consume tasty food, when we take possession of a desired object or when we consume alcohol.
Another substance produced by the brain associated with feelings of happiness is phenylethylamine (PEA) , a neurohormone that causes euphoria and is the cause of the infamous closed stomach of the lover. PEA is present in small quantities in chocolate and is also released by the brain following sporting activity, which is not by chance considered a natural antidote to depression.
The falling in love phase brings with it not only positive emotions, but also feelings of stress and anxiety, with all the related symptoms. Responsible for these side effects is the so-called "stress hormone", cortisol , which usually intervenes in emergency situations that require immediate action by the body to survive. It is difficult to establish the evolutionary reasons that have led to associating stress with the early stages of love; according to the scientific community it would seem that it is associated with the atavistic fear of losing the attachment relationship that has been created with the other person. The thought of being able to lose the bond is a source of stress. But cortisol isn't solely responsible for love stress.
In the brain of the lover, the level of another neurotransmitter, serotonin, is drastically lowered , with effects such as insomnia, irritability and lack of appetite. A drastic reduction of serotonin also causes the lover to focus totally on the loved one.
It is precisely this mixture of stimulating substances which cause euphoria and happiness with other substances linked to feelings of stress which causes that unique effect of falling in love which we call “ butterflies in the stomach ”.
When the tumultuous phases of falling in love come to an end, after about 12-24 months, two hormones take over which are the basis of well-being and sociality: vasopressin and oxytocin . Oxytocin, nicknamed "the cuddle hormone", is produced at various times: during sexual activity, but also during childbirth, breastfeeding or even with a hug. By binding itself to such crucial moments linked not only to the sexual sphere but also to the family one, oxytocin is the hormone that underlies a long-lasting emotional bond , whether it is with a partner or a family member.
The areas of the brain involved: love makes you blind
Identifying the areas of the brain that are activated during falling in love for the production of chemicals has always been a challenge for science. The studies of the American anthropologist Helen Fisher have given an important boost in this field: by performing magnetic resonance imaging on the brains of boys who were shown the image of their loved one, she mapped their brain impulses and discovered that falling in love it is triggered in the hypothalamus. In reality, two particular brain areas are also involved: the caudate nucleus , more related to the perception of reward, and the ventral tegmental area , associated with pleasure.
While falling in love, other areas of the brain experienced a decrease in activity . This is the case of the frontal cortex, usually responsible for the critical judgment that is applied to judge other people, contexts or situations. This lowering of the rational evaluation function is at the basis of often definitively irrational love behaviors .
In psychology we speak of the " halo effect " to define a typical behavior of a lover: when an important characteristic is identified in the loved one, such as sympathy, the judgment is also extended to other parameters, such as beauty or skill. There is therefore a scientific foundation also in the saying «love is blind! ».