Humans have always been curious about how love affects the heart, body and mind. But what was once a mystery is now being understood with increased clarity. Neuroscience is giving us the answers. Being in love is more than just sweaty palms and fluttering hearts, and new research is revealing how romantic feelings and falling in love can affect behavior through corresponding neurophysiological changes in the brain. Scientists use neuroimaging to study specific regions of the brain to see if there are obvious neurological changes when a person is thinking about someone whom they love. Scientists and psychologists differentiate the three stages of love as lust, attraction, and attachment, with each stage producing different and varying levels of hormones and chemicals in the brain.
The early stages of love are associated with the initial attraction, lust and sex. The attraction stage is characterized by passionate and intense love, and when hormones and chemicals in the brain are at their peak. The calmer, deeper and long-term love is characterized by bonding. According to psychologists the phases of love which typically produce the most profound changes in the brain and provide the most mental, physical and behavioral benefits rarely last more than one to two years. Different types of love, or varying degrees of being in love elicit contrasting effects on the brain and, therefore, different behavioral responses. Some of the areas of the brain that are activated by feelings of being in love are similar, while others are different.
In the early stages of love, which are generally distinguished by sexual attraction and lust, sexual behavior is typically initiated by increases in estrogen for females and testosterone in males. The brain produces chemicals or neurotransmitters in this phase, which are called adrenaline, dopamine and serotonin. Adrenaline activates the stress response, leading to sweaty palms and a dry mouth; dopamine stimulates a rush of pleasure in the brain similar to the effects of cocaine; and serotonin is responsible for the individual being ‘stuck’ in the person’s thoughts for approximately 85 percent of the time throughout the day. This crazy, mad love is characterized by a response in the brain strikingly similar to people who crave and are addicted to drugs. This is because the areas of the brain that are activated by addictions are also activated when people are in the early stages of falling in love, which are exemplified by intense and romantic feelings.
The next phase, generally called “attachment,” is associated with the females and males brains producing love-induced hormones in response to the excitement and passion the second phase of love is characterized by, called oxytocin. Hormones, also called neural substrates are activated when individuals are in love and contribute to bonding. Oxytocin is a powerful hormone, which is also released by men and women during orgasm and deepens the feelings of attachment between them following sex. Because of its effects on affection, it’s referred to as “the cuddle hormone.”
The deeper and long-term commitment stage of love is associated with the hormone vasopressin, which is also released in the brain after sex. The addiction-type characteristics within the brain begin to decrease, as does the passion. The male and female begin to settle into a calmer stage of love, where oxytocin produces important bonding pathways in the brain. While some oxytocin is released into the bloodstream, the majority of it exists in the brain and is localized in the hypothalamus.
One of the most insightful findings revealed through scientific research is that love can be considered a natural drug, due to its ability to relieve pain. During the second phase, when love is associated with intense, passionate feelings, it affects the brain in ways similar to painkillers. It has a somewhat analgesic effect on the body’s systems and the stronger the love the more powerful are its effects, which scientists refer to it as love-induced analgesia. Research has shown that it’s associated with the brain’s reward centers and that love’s power lies in its ability to distract the individual from pain through the connection of cognitive pathways.
Other neurological research on the brain on love has revealed that there are 12 areas of the brain working in unison when releasing the euphoria-inducing chemicals during the second stage of falling in love, such as dopamine, oxytocin, adrenaline and vasopressin. The findings suggest that these chemicals and hormones have the ability to affect cognitive functions, such as body image and mental imagery. Additionally, the localization of romantic love on the brain implies that there is a subsequent effect on cognitive behavior, as opposed to just pure emotion.
Love activates areas in the brain that are responsible for motivation, emotion, attention and memory. It has the ability to influence stress reduction, pain relief and has consequences for an overall sense of well-being, as well as mental and physical health. The happiness and euphoria that the hormones and chemicals the brain produces in response to being in love can stimulate productivity and have positive effects on experiencing pleasurable and deeply rewarding experiences. Finally, new research into identifying areas of the brain that are affected and stimulated by love can enable therapists to find more effective treatments for patients suffering from heartbreak.
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