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The Science behind Love

“Love is in the air again…”

Well, we may not be able to speak for the air around us, but love definitely is in your body. Yes, we finally have an explanation for why you’re going all gaga over that special someone in your life! Breathe, you’re not alone.

To understand the science behind love, Dr. Helen Fisher from the Department of Anthropology at Rutgers University focuses her research on romantic love and evolution of the brain. In her paper on Lust, Attraction, and Attachment in Mammalian Reproduction, she and her team break romantic love into three distinct categories: Lust, Attraction and Attachment.

According to this team of researchers, each emotion category is associated with a distinctive group of neural correlates. Let’s take a look at each one of these.

1. Lust

Or the sex drive, characterized by the craving for sexual gratification.

Lust, or our sex drive, is primarily associated with estrogens and androgens. The evolutionary necessity for our sex drive comes from all mammals’ need to reproduce. It is only through reproduction that living organisms can continue to pass on their genes, and hence, continue their species.

This is where the hypothalamus of the brain comes into play. The hypothalamus is responsible, among other functions, for managing sexual behavior. It stimulates the production of the two major sex hormones – testosterone (which belongs to the hormone group of androgens) and estrogen.

Contrary to popular belief, both testosterone and estrogen play important roles in males as well as females. Testosterone is known to increase the libido in everyone, not just in males.

2. The Attraction System

The paper further discusses the second category, the attraction system.

While it is completely possible that human beings can be attracted to someone they lust for, just as they can lust for someone they are attracted to, one can also happen without the existence of the other.

If you’ve ever found yourself head-over-heels crazy in love, especially during the first few weeks or months of a new relationship, it’s this attraction system you want to blame. The attraction system deals with the pathways that are responsible for the “reward” behavior in our brains.

When exposed to anything rewarding, our brain’s response is to increase the release of the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine. If you’ve ever wondered why eating chocolate improves your mood so significantly, it’s because small amounts of elements found in chocolates also signal our brains to release dopamine. Yep, we also just explained why you love chocolate!

Consequently, when you enjoy your partner’s company, your brain releases the feel-good dopamine, making you feel all euphoric and butterflies-in-your-stomach excited. As if this wasn’t enough, two related hormones, serotonin and norepinephrine, also become active during this stage.

Norepinephrine is another catecholamine like dopamine. It releases extra energy into your body, making you feel like “your heart is racing” when you’re in love. It can even cause a loss in your appetite and sleep, which may finally be the explanation you’ve been looking for – you may literally be too in love to fall asleep!

Low levels of serotonin may be associated with attraction, as they are with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. This is believed to induce insomnia. What this suggests when it comes to explaining the science behind love is that such low serotonin may contribute to obsessive thinking, which may explain why you just haven’t been able to stop thinking about your loved one!

3. Attachment

Attachment is the most dominant factor in serious long-term relationships. You could look at attachment as the reconciling bridge that leads friendship toward love.

Attachment is also strongly linked to parent-infant bonding, further emphasizing the significance of the attachment system in romantic relationships.

The “cuddle hormone”, oxytocin, like dopamine, is produced by the hypothalamus. It is the hormone released during sex, childbirth and breastfeeding. The underlying dynamic that is common in all three situations is bonding.

There you have it – the science behind love explained! Just be cautious to recognize each of the three categories from each other. You really don’t want to be stuck in an even messier situation.

Love is a very real phenomenon that begins its experience in the brain, affecting your entire body. It is all in your brain and body. If there’s nothing else you can do about it, the next time someone asks, you can at least explain to them exactly why you’ve been so lovesick.

Happy Science Loving!