Romantic love is one of those phenomena that have inspired many philosophers, and has been the main theme of many films or novels. And although its complexity makes it very difficult to study, everyone has at some time in their lives experienced this strong feeling that directs all our senses and drives us to be with the person we love.
In fact, recent research concludes that love is an impulse and a motivation rather than an emotion. It makes us feel that we are at the top, but it can also lead to self-destruction if we do not know how to manage the lack of love properly.
Undoubtedly, the psychology of love is an interesting subject, and in this article I will talk about the chemistry of love and the importance of culture and expectations when it comes to falling in love .
The psychology of love and its relationship to drugs
Until just a few years ago, love was treated as an emotion, but even though it may seem so at certain times, it has many characteristics that differentiate it from these (the emotions).
Following the studies of Helen Fisher, an anthropologist, biologist and researcher of human behavior, the scientific community gave more weight to the idea that love is an impulse and a motivation, since the results of her research confirmed that two important areas related to motivating behaviors are activated: the caudate nucleus and the ventral tegmental area (VTA), both regions highly innervated by dopaminergic neurons and related to the repetition of pleasurable behaviors such as sex or drugs.
But the complexity of love is not limited to these two areas of the brain . According to the conclusions of a study led by Stephanie Ortigue, from Syracuse University (New York) and published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, up to 12 areas of the brain are activated and work together to release chemicals such as dopamine, oxytocin, vasopressin, noradrenaline or serotonin.
Love modifies our brain and induces changes in our central nervous system, as it activates a biochemical process that starts in the cortex, leads to intense physiological responses and produces a great feeling of euphoria (similar to some drugs such as cocaine), although it also has an effect on the intellectual areas of the brain and can affect our thoughts. In other words, when we don’t fall in love… we’re high!
- This same research found that, depending on the different types of love, different zones related to the reward system (in which the ventral tegmental area is located) and some higher cognitive functions are activated. You can learn more about the different kinds of love in our article: “Sternberg’s triangular theory of love”
From the madness of falling in love to the rationality of love
Love has aroused much interest in the scientific community. Some research has focused on analyzing the phases of love, although many times there have been discrepancies among experts. For John Gottman, author of the book Principa Amoris: The New Science of Love, romantic love has three distinct phases that appear sequentially, just as people are born, grow up, and age. These phases are: limerence (or falling in love), romantic love (bonding), and mature love.
Not everyone overcomes these phases, since of the process of the intense chemical cascade of falling in love must give way to a more consolidated love that is characterized by a deeper trust , where more rational decisions must be taken and where negotiation becomes one of the keys to building a real and loyal commitment.
Hormones and neurotransmitters related to falling in love and love
Some researchers have tried to find out exactly what happens in our brain, what neurotransmitters and hormones are involved in this phenomenon and why our thoughts and behavior change when someone conquers us.
Dr. Theresa Crenshaw, in her book The Alchemy of Love and Lust, explains that not just anyone can make us feel this magical sensation, but when falling in love occurs, then, and only then, does the neurochemical cascade of falling in love explode to change our perception of the world.
In summary, the most important hormones and neurotransmitters involved in the process of falling in love are the following :
- Phenylethylamine (PEA) : is known as the molecule of falling in love, and when we fall in love, this substance floods our brain. It produces a stimulating effect and the feeling of “being on a cloud.”
- Noradrenaline (norepinephrine) : is a catecholamine that has a great influence on mood, motivation, attention span and sexual behavior.
- Adrenaline (epinephrine) : is similar to noradrenaline in both structure and function. One could say that from a functional point of view there is no difference between the two, except that the function of adrenaline is predominantly outside the central nervous system (although it also acts inside as a neurotransmitter).
- Dopamine : is the main neurotransmitter related to placental behaviour and the repetition of these behaviours. It is involved in the use of drugs and their addiction, in gambling and in love and infatuation.
- Serotonin : Serotonin is known as the “happiness hormone” and high levels of this substance are associated with positive mood, optimism, good humour and sociability. Research has shown that a large drop in this neurotransmitter occurs in lovelessness, which can lead a person to obsession and even depression.
- Oxytocin : also called the “hugging hormone”, it intervenes in the creation of close bonds with the partner. It helps to forge permanent bonds between lovers after the first wave of emotion, and by hugging, kissing or making love we are encouraging the release of this substance.
- Vasopressin : It is known as the hormone of monogamy, and is also present in the attachment between a mother and child. It is released accordingly with proximity and touch, and promotes a strong emotional bond. Theresa Crenshaw, in an attempt to explain its function, says “Testosterone wants to party, vasopressin wants to stay home,” referring to its attenuating influence on individuals’ sexual desire. In short, it promotes more rational and less capricious thinking, providing stability.
When love breaks up: what happens?
Although there are social factors involved in falling in love with one person or another, there is no doubt that falling in love and love, when it ends, can cause serious problems for the person who is still in love.
Due to natural selection, a brain was produced in humans that evolved to maximize reproduction and therefore non-extinction of the species, where the neurochemicals of happiness evolved to promote reproductive behaviors. This, which has had a great impact on our evolution, means that when couples break up, we have to fight against our emotions, instincts and motivations .
The conclusions of a study by the Albert Einstein College of Medicine make it clear: “In lovelessness, just as when a person is addicted to drugs, the consequences of addiction are so strong that they can lead to serious depressive and obsessive behaviour”. When the bond with a person has been very strong, it takes time to weaken the neuronal circuits in which the chemicals of love are involved , and as with a drug addict, the best way to overcome this is zero contact (at least during the first stages of the break-up and whenever possible).
In fact, love psychologists recommend “all-or-nothing therapy,” since heartbreak is not a linear process (there may be relapses) and acceptance may take time. Some people experience it as a period of mourning, and we must not forget that we are getting used to being without the person we love and with whom we have shared special moments.
Love: more than just chemistry
The neurochemicals of love exert a great influence on the behavior of the person in love , but we cannot forget that social and cultural factors and education play an important role when it comes to falling in love.
Culture often defines our tastes when it comes to finding a partner, and the choice and attraction often fits our mental schemes and our idea of the world and life. It is true that when we have the person we like in front of us, we get excited and the chemicals of love do their job. However, the origin is in the expectations, which are shaped by our mental schemes and often feed on the concept of love that we have seen on television or in the movies. It is difficult to imagine a millionaire in love with a homeless person.
As for the crush, and as anthropologist Helen Fisher explains, “no one knows exactly why it happens. We know that there is a very important cultural component involved. The timing is also crucial: you have to be willing to fall in love. People tend to fall in love with someone close to them, but we also fall in love with people who are mysterious.
Mature love and cultural influence
As for mature love, and according to the opinion of Robert Epstein, psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology: “Cultural practices have a significant influence on how people seek and develop love, and the key is compatibility with mental schemes, that is, sharing a similar view of the world”. Epstein thinks that “in cultures where people get married with an irrational view of love promoted by the media; they have serious difficulties in maintaining the relationship, partly because they often confuse love with infatuation. This is not a conducive situation for a long-term relationship.”
Love has to do with beliefs and values , and falling in love is a series of chemical reactions produced in different brain regions that make us have an idyllic perception of a person. Epstein states that “older people beyond the age of having children sometimes have partners for more practical reasons”. This suggests that over the years we can educate ourselves to have a much more realistic view of what it means to have a partner.