Your Brain on Love

by Stacey

As far as your brain is concerned, falling in love is a lot like being addicted to drugs only without the worry of getting arrested or running out of cash. According to this LA Times story, the harder you fall the more likely you are to experience sleeplessness, loss of appetite, a rush of euphoria, and a willingness to do incredibly stupid things to get more action.

So far scientists have discovered that a combination of certain of neural systems, chemical messengers, and life experiences together to set the process in motion from initial attraction to passionate love and finally to longterm companionship.

For starters, initial attraction between two people often occurs in situations in which people are aroused, either by fear, anxiety, or even laughter. “It’s pretty simple,” says relationship researcher Arthur Aron, psychologist at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. “You’re feeling physiologically aroused, and it’s ambiguous why. Then you see an attractive person, and you think, ‘Oh, that’s why.'”

Mutual attraction itself isn’t so rare. People often glom onto each other for the sketchiest of reasons and later wonder what the hell they were thinking. In order to get to passionate love the brain needs to really kick into gear, and that researchers are finding, requires a part of the brain called the limbic system. According to the article, the limbic system is “nestled deep within the brain between the neocortex (the region responsible for reason and intellect) and the reptilian brain (responsible for primitive instincts).”

Studies of people in passionate love using fMRI, which is brain imaging technology, show “activity in the ventral tegmental area and other regions of the brain’s reward system associated with motivation, elation and focused attention,” says Helen Fisher, evolutionary anthropologist at Rutgers University who studies human attraction.

“It’s the same part of the brain that presumably is active when a smoker reaches for a cigarette or when gamblers think they’re going to win the lottery,” the article says. “No wonder it’s as hard to say no to the feeling of romantic arousal as it would be to say no to a windfall in the millions. The brain has seen what it wants, and it’s going to get it.”

Once this part of the brain gets activated, a flood of feel-good chemicals such as dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin go racing to the nucleus accubens. And that’s when the cravings begin.

Biologically, the cravings and pleasure unleashed are as strong as any drug. Surely such a goal is worth taking risks for, and other alterations in the brain help ensure that the lovelorn will do just that. Certain regions, scientists have found, are being deactivated, such as within the amygdala, associated with fear. “That’s why you can do such insane things when you’re in love,” Fisher says. “You would never otherwise dream of driving across the country in 13 hours, but for love, you would.”

Sooner or later, excited brain messages reach the caudate nucleus, a dopamine-rich area where unconscious habits and skills, such as the ability to ride a bike, are stored. The attraction signal turns the love object into a habit, and then an obsession.

This explains a lot. Remember that time you hid out on the street corner just to see if he really was out with his friends? Or the energy you spent staring at the phone willing yourself not to call again? At the time you wondered what happened to your dignity. Well, now you know. Sing it with me!

You can’t sleep, you can’t eat
There’s no doubt, you’re in deep
Your throat is tight, you can’t breathe
Another kiss is all you need
Whoa, you like to think that you’re immune to the stuff, oh yeah
It’s closer to the truth to say you can’t get enough
You know you’re gonna have to face it, you’re addicted to love

Music fades out. Unlike drugs, recovery from love addiction in the brain is relatively painless. If the relationship lasts, after about two to four years the urgency subsides and the mingling of the mundane takes over. People feel stable and committed and they have their wits about them once again. I guess that’s where I’m at in life. I basically have my wits although sometimes I get a bit wistful remembering the time when my wits were gone and I was willing to drive across the country in half a day to see my beloved.

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Filed under addicted to love, addiction, brain, drugs, falling in love, life, love, love research, marriage, psychology, relationships, Robert Palmer, sex

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