By Professor Kimberly Resnick Anderson
The chemicals of a hopeless romantic.
Love is a many-splendored thing. And falling in love is certainly one of life’s most exquisite experiences.
Falling in love makes people feel optimistic, energetic, and euphoric. All good stuff. But it also clouds our judgment, causing us to make impulsive, something risky decisions. So, what’s really happening to our brains when we fall in love?
Many neurochemical changes unfold as soon as we think we’ve met our “soul mate.” It all begins with Dopamine.
Dopamine activates the “reward center” in the brain and is highly associated with pleasure. The awesomeness of chocolate cake or finding the perfect pair of shoes — Dopamine. The thrill of gambling, using cocaine, playing video games, all Dopamine.
Dopamine — The Pleasure Center
All basic drives are associated with increased levels of Dopamine, including sex. Here’s an interesting fact — Dopamine is activated by novelty.
Anything new (a new person, a new place, a new food) increases Dopamine to varying degrees. So, when you meet a new guy or gal that you find attractive and consider to be a potential sex partner (or life partner) your brain gets of nice blast of Dopamine. In fact, when sex gets stale, I recommend that couples do something novel together to spice things back up. That’s why “vacation sex” is typically considered to be more exciting. It’s because you are in a different environment doing adventurous and novel things.
Serotonin, Obsessive Thoughts
Serotonin is another neurochemical that plays an important role when we fall in love. Have you ever met a potential love interest and you can’t stop thinking about them? You can’t sleep or eat because you are so distracted with thoughts of your new beloved.
Have you felt all-consumed, lost focus, daydreamed? We have serotonin to thank for these obsessive, intrusive thoughts. When you’re preoccupied and distracted and you believe it must be “true love,” try to remember that it might be serotonin playing tricks on you! When we are falling in love, the same parts of our brain light up on an MRI as when we are acutely mentally ill.
We really can be “crazy” in love! So, when you are ready to quit your job and move across the country to move in with someone you met online 3 weeks ago, take a time-out and remember that Serotonin may be distorting your typically sound judgment.
Norepinephrine — Remembering Every Detail
Another neurochemical being activated when we fall in love is Norepinephrine, which is actually a chemical derived from Dopamine. Norepinephrine increases memory for new stimuli, assisting with euphoric recall.
Have you ever noticed that you can describe every detail of the first night you met your new love interest? The color of her dress, his cologne, the song that was playing when you spotted him, the exact time it was when she walked in the bar? That’s Norepinephrine at work.
This clarity of detail can trick us into thinking that it must be true love. We try to make sense of the intense, powerful feelings. They demand our attention. Sometimes we interpret this intensity as proof of having met our soul mate. I am not saying it isn’t!
I’m just saying we are sometimes overwhelmed by these feelings and this may affect our judgment.
Oxytocin — The Cuddle Chemical
Oxytocin is a key neurochemical involved in falling in love. Oxytocin is known as the “Love hormone,” the “Attachment hormone” and the “Bonding hormone.” It’s activated by all kinds of intimacy, even holding hands or hugging (not just sexual contact).
Try to think back, did a potential love interest inadvertently graze your arm with their hand and it felt like a bolt of electricity? That’s Oxytocin. Oxytocin also activates a sense of calm, satisfaction, and peacefulness. Oxytocin levels increase during breastfeeding.
Any skin to skin contact will activate Oxytocin. You know that “post-coital glow” you experience after sex, that “spring in your step?” That’s Oxytocin. In fact, after an orgasm, Oxytocin levels jump to 5X normal circulating levels and remain elevated for up to 24 hours! Not bad!
Adrenaline — Fight or Flight
Adrenaline is another neurochemical that is activated when we meet someone new that might be “the one.” Have you ever found yourself with a racing heart and sweaty palms when your crush approaches? Has your mouth gone dry when you attempt to speak?
That is Adrenaline flowing through your body. When activated, it can trigger a “fight or flight” response and increase blood levels of Cortisol (a stress hormone). This typically only happens when we are approached by (or near) someone we find attractive or perceive as potential partner (either “long-term”, i.e. forever or “short-term”, i.e. a one-night stand).
So, it’s easy to understand, given all of these physiologic changes, why we convince ourselves that our new partner is perfect for us. We are under the influence of neurochemicals! We are unable to see any of the clay beneath the marble statue.
We have neuochemical blinders on. This exciting, initial stage of love actually has a name. It is called Limerence. It’s defined as the state of being infatuated or obsessed with another person, typically experienced involuntarily and characterized by a strong desire for reciprocation of one’s feelings.
Keep in mind that the euphoria associated with falling in love starts to fade within 6-12 months; and by 18-24 months, the transcendental experience is virtually gone. This is not to say that we stop loving or valuing our partner, we’re just no longer under the gripping hold of neurochemicals like we were in the blissful beginning. Aahhh, the good ol’ days.