We sing songs, watch movies and read books about it, but what actually is love? Even though we can feel it and recognize it, most of us still aren’t sure what it really is. What makes infatuation different from a love that lasts forever? Can love even last forever, and is it necessary for a healthy relationship? Oh, and how does it even happen? Well, here’s the science.
1. Losing your mind over someone
People have always thought that love comes from the heart but apparently it all goes down in our brains. The presence or even the thought of your romantic partner can activate brain regions associated with motivation and reward. The anterior cingulated cortex, hippocampus and hypothalamus are activated and in turn reduce anxiety, inhibit defensive behavior and increase trust in a partner. Meanwhile, the frontal cortex and amygdala are deactivated to prevent judgment and negative emotions towards a partner.
Actually, love can be divided into 3 categories: lust, attraction and attachment. And they are all characterized by their own hormones! While estrogen and testosterone drive lust, serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine build attraction, and vasopressin and oxytocin create attachment.
2. Enjoying the crazy chemistry
Testosterone and estrogen are most often thought of as male and female hormones, but this is not entirely correct since everyone needs both of these hormones. They have a lot to do with lust – our need to reproduce.
Love is much more than lust though, and vasopressin and oxytocin are the hormones associated with this side of love. These hormones can even stimulate dopamine release, which creates a pleasurable, rewarding feeling. The dopaminergic pathways are also associated with the feeling of addiction – we all know that feeling when you want to talk to someone all the time!
When you feel attracted to someone, serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine are released. This makes you euphoric, giddy, full of energy, and with no desire to sleep or eat.
3. Getting attached
To have a healthy relationship, you can’t rely only on lust and attraction because you also need attachment. This is where vasopressin and oxytocin step in because these are the hormones associated with attachment. We get attached to friends and family members too though, not just romantic partners, so that’s why these hormones aren’t the only ones you need for romantic love.
4. Feeling heartbroken
Love is associated with a lot of positive emotions but sometimes also irrational behavior, jealousy, and all the other not so positive emotions. Even though it’s no excuse for toxic behavior, a lot of these negative emotions can be traced back to hormones!
Did you know that a person in love feels much like an addict on cocaine? It’s an actual fact that the same regions in your brain light up when you’re feeling attraction as when an addict takes cocaine (or when you binge eat sweets). When you crave someone as if you are addicted to them, it’s due to hormones. Also, interestingly, sexual arousal seems to turn off the regions in the brain that regulate rational behavior, self-awareness, and critical thinking. Not a big surprise, right?
5. Physical symptoms and the “side effects” of love
The signs of falling in love often occur as physical symptoms too. If you’ve ever hoped to find love or said “I love you”, you’re familiar with butterflies in your stomach, weak knees, dry mouth, and a physical and emotional connection.
We become very motivated when we fall in love; we’re willing to do whatever it takes to win the person we fell for. We feel the need to call them, text them, see them, and we feel like the world will end if we can’t do that. Everything we see reminds us of them and every song is about us and our love. Sound familiar?
6. Love can last forever
Infatuation might be something that fades with time but apparently love really can last forever. A study was conducted on 15 people who claimed that they were still in love after being married for 21 years (on average). What was discovered? That the brain pathways associated with intense romantic love still showed activity! Naturally, not every love will last forever but if you find love with the right person, it really can last until you’re old and grey.
7. Love at first sight exists
Saying that love at first sight exists is a pretty bold statement considering that there isn’t actual proof of this, but many scientists seem to agree that this is not just a myth. It’s definitely possible to feel an instant connection with another person, and this is again related to the process that happens in the brain. That being said, don’t assume that you need to think to yourself “I love that person” as soon as you see them to have a healthy relationship with them later. While falling in love can come out of nowhere for some, for others it gradually builds up over a longer time. There’s no right or wrong!
So, what is love in the end? Billions of people all around the world are hoping to find it with that special person and never lose it. And even if it is just chemicals in the brain, love really is great.