The Awesome Power of Love on the Brain
Most of us have heard of the expression, “love is blind”. It is a way of explaining why, when we are in love, we tend to overlook the negatives in our partners and focus only on the positives.
When two people have chemistry between them (or fall in love) they often appear to change from normal versions of themselves to some sort of possessed or obsessed version.
Who hasn’t seen one of their friends (or even themselves) lose all semblance of sanity when love takes over?
We have always known that the changes taking place in starry eyed lovers are powerful but we now know that they are a force of nature.
Stages of Love
Dr. Helen Fisher a renowned anthropologist and love researcher at the Kinsey Institute identifies the three stages of love as: Lust, Attraction and Attachment. Each of these stages produces unique neurotransmitters and hormones in the brains of lovers to keep them interested.
In the first stage, Lust, Adrenaline pumps up your heart rate and even makes you sweat. It is similar to stressing out, only in a good way.
In the next stage, Attraction, Dopamine fills the blood with desire and pleasure, not unlike the rush of cocaine or meth-amphetamines.
In the last stage, Attachment, Serotonin floods the blood stream creating a strong feeling of warmth, fondness and connection to your partner.
In other words there are clear biological explanations for the crazy feelings people experience when they fall in love. Unfortunately some people expect the intensity of those feelings to continue if they stay in the relationship.
“Love junkies” often look for a dopamine fix when their brain chemistry has settled into the relationship. They can become disappointed when they no longer feel that original love surge and not want to settle for more normal feelings.
Lasting relationships have been able somehow to morph those original feelings into longer lasting feelings of mature love, caring and contentment.
How Love Lights You Up…
When you’re in love your eyes light up, your face lights up — and so do four tiny portions of your brain.
Neurobiologists, Andreas Bartels and Semir Zeki of University College in London, used MRI brain scans to peer into the brains of college students in the throes of early romantic love.
When the subjects were shown photographs of their sweethearts, the MRI images showed that four parts of their brains ‘lit up.’
The researchers compared the MRI images to brain scans taken from people in different emotional states, including sexual arousal, feelings of happiness and cocaine-induced euphoria.
But the pattern for romantic love was unique. Interestingly, looking at a picture of their loved one also reduced activity in three portions of the brain active when one is upset or depressed, indicating that even thinking of your lover can literally lift your mood.
Is Love Addictive?
When you fall in love your skin flushes, you breathe heavy, and your palms tend to sweat.
Why? Because your brain is experiencing a biochemical rush of dopamine, nor-epinephrine and phenyl ethylamine, close chemical cousins to amphetamines.
But it’s easy to build up a tolerance to these stimulating bio-chemicals. Then, as with any other tolerance, it takes more of the substance to get that special feeling of infatuation.
Some neuroscientists theorize that folks who jump from one relationship to another are hooked on the intoxication of falling in love.
But interestingly, in the case of an enduring romance (a long term love relationship), just the presence of one’s partner stimulates the production of endorphins. Endorphins are the feel good biochemicals also behind the experience of runner’s high and are natural pain-killers.
The Biology of Romance
Research suggests that romantic attraction is actually a primitive, biologically based drive just like hunger or thirst.
The biology of romance helps account for why we might travel long distances for a single kiss, and plunge into hopeless despair if our beloved turns away or rejects us.
It’s the drive for romance that enables us to focus on one particular person, although we often can’t explain why.
Research has proven that romantic attraction activates portions of the brain with high concentrations of receptors for dopamine. And dopamine is the chemical messenger also tied to states of euphoria, craving and addiction.
Other scientific studies have linked high levels of dopamine (and a related agent, nor-epinephrine) to heightened attention and short-term memory, hyperactivity, sleeplessness and goal oriented behavior.
The Psychology of Love
When they first fall in love couples often show the signs of surging dopamine: Increased energy, less need for sleep or food, and highly focused attention.
Poets and song writers have long claimed that the power of the biochemical state we call romantic love is enough to blind one’s judgment.
We all know how new lovers tend to idealize their partner — magnifying their virtues, and explaining away their flaws. It is called Romantic Attraction.
Researchers believe that this idealization probably enables us to enter into a long term relationship in the first place. If you only see someone’s faults you will probably end the relationship and move on to someone else.
Romantic Attraction keeps you interested and pushes you to take risks you might otherwise not take.
If passionate romance is like a drug, as the MRI images suggest, then, like any drug, it’s bound to lose its kick.
In an early experiment, psychologists at the State University of New York at Buffalo followed a group of 121 dating couples. Every few months the couples answered questionnaires to find out how much they idealized their partner, and how well their relationship was doing.
The researchers discovered that the couples who idealized each other the most had closer relationships one year later.
This would indicate the obvious, if partners have high regard for one another they are likely to have a close and loving relationship.
The Issue of Self-Love
How does the love of one’s self — also known as a positive self-concept or good self-esteem fit into this picture?
Research indicates that depressed people who feel unloved are 50% more likely to be vulnerable to diseases like cancer or heart disease.
Negativity, fear, anger and depression are not just in your head. They are biochemical states.
Neuroscience has proven beyond a doubt that we can alter such painful brain patterns, and consciously create the biochemical states known as joy, happiness, motivation, and even ecstasy.
There is no longer any doubt that those good feelings generated by brain chemistry can be driven by love.
About the author
Dr. Stan Hyman is a licensed psychotherapist and Life Coach in private practice in Miami, Florida. He works with individuals, couples and business partners helping them to resolve conflict, create positive mindsets and build great relationships.