It has happened to most of us at least once.
You can’t stop thinking about him — or her. You dance until dawn in each other’s arms. You can’t sleep and you can’t get down more than a couple of spoonfuls of dinner.
You’re in love. And yes, it’s in your head. Literally.
So say a growing number of experts in the social and natural sciences. Scientists like Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist at Rutgers University, say that when a person is in love, the brain makes dopamine, a natural stimulant. It sprays that stimulant to many regions of the brain, including the system “for craving, for wanting, for motivation, for focus and for elation,” says Fisher, author of Why Him? Why Her?: Finding Real Love by Understanding Your Personality Type.
Fisher, whom I interviewed for a recent podcast on SexReally.com, says “When you fall in love, the first thing that happens is a person takes on special meaning. Every single thing about them is special and you focus on it. You’d like to have sex with them, but what you really want them to do is call, write, invite you out, tell you that they love you.”
If your beloved doesn’t share your feelings, you’ll feel hurt — and still deeply attached.
The biology of love is not the biology of lust. Lust, says Larry Sherman, a neurologist at Oregon Health and Science University, is driven by testosterone and estrogen, and rarely lasts very long.
A lovesick person, on the other hand, can act like “an obsessive-compulsive cocaine addict who has high blood pressure” for quite a while, he says, especially if his or her love interest breaks off the relationship. According to Fisher, studies show that 40 percent of people rejected in love demonstrate signs of clinical depression.
What do you do if you’re rejected? Use the 12-step program that alcoholics and other addicts use, Fisher advises. Throw away the cards and letters, don’t write, don’t call and don’t try to be “just friends.”
And what if the relationship lasts? It probably will become a different, calmer kind of love, Fisher says, spurred by activity in the part of the brain that encourages pair-bonding, or attachment.
She adds that long-term love need not be boring, however. Doing new things with your partner — vacationing somewhere you’ve never been, learning a new sport together — will drive up the dopamine and may have you dancing until dawn again. Or at least wanting to.
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Laura Sessions Stepp is Senior Media Fellow at The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, where she hosts a podcast for The Campaign’s new website, sexreally.com. SexReally seeks to foster conversations about relationships and sex while addressing gaps in people’s knowledge about fertility and contraceptive use through polling, videos, and other content.
For more about love as an addiction, visit www.sexreally.com.