By Sarah Murray, Natural Solutions
At that very moment, the smoky air turned remarkably sweet. Wanda and Sam ducked out of the party and made their way to precious space behind closed doors. After months of shared glances, soul-spilling talks, and nights that ended too soon, they would surrender to their cravings. Her hand brushed his face. His forearm arrived across the small of her back with determination. Sam diverted his glance and prepared to tell the woman of his dreams what little he knew of truth: “Wanda,” he softly whispered. “I…I…I love dopamine.” Cut.
C’mon! Why should movie stars and troubadours have all the fun in defining love? The real love connection may belong to the chemists and evolutionary biologists. Sure, candles, roses, and serenades nurture the process, but truth-be-told, romantic love, lust, and long-term companionship can be explained quite movingly by science. A neurochemical release causes every sweaty palm, and evolution propels you to check your email every minute for that elusive message from him or her. The explanation of how human sexuality works remains both fascinating and downright riddling. Time to trade in those rose-colored lenses for a lab coat!
We know that love shakes us down with butterflies, sweats, and shivers. But how does romantic love–as opposed to fleeting sexual attraction or long-term devotion–affect the mind? What triggers the euphoria, insomnia, and the obsessive feelings that positively turn your life upside down?
According to Helen Fisher, a leading researcher in the field of love at Rutgers University, “Love is a universal feeling, produced by specific chemicals and networks in the brain.” The most prevalent chemicals associated with these feelings are dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. Elevated levels of dopamine enhance attention, motivation, and goal orientation. They boost feelings of ecstasy, accelerate breathing, and make the heart race. You can get the same sort of dopamine rush by smoking cigarettes or snorting cocaine, but falling in love is a whole lot healthier.
Norepinephrine acts like an upper in the brain, producing feelings of exhilaration, excessive energy, and sleeplessness. Together, norepinephrine and dopamine create the brain’s cocktail of love. Fisher conducted research using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to watch the brains of people in love while they talked about their mates and looked at pictures of them. She found that the areas of the brain with high concentrations of receptors for dopamine, like the caudate nucleus (a large C-shaped region at the brain’s center), showed an increase in blood flow when people were feeling amorous. In plain-speak, thoughts and images of people we love trigger a noticeable release of dopamine and norepinephrine, and along with them, all the above-mentioned heart-pounding side effects.
A look at the role of serotonin shows that the leap from love to madness may be but a short hop. Studies have linked decreased levels of serotonin to psychiatric disorders including depression, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), and anxiety. According to research by Donatella Marazziti, a psychiatrist at the University of Pisa in Italy, when people fall madly in love, their levels of serotonin drop -closely matching the serotonin levels of patients with OCD. The scientific conclusion here is that new love can actually trigger feelings of depression, anxiety, and obsession akin to mental illness. But why would it be advantageous as a species to have coupling associated with something negative? Wouldn’t that make it difficult to fall in love and procreate?
According to Hagop Akiskal, a psychiatrist at the University of California, San Diego and one of Marazziti’s coauthors on the new study, our feelings of obsession associated with serotonin are a perfect evolutionary strategy. “Without intense emotion, which typically creates an unrealistic image of the love object, nobody in their “right” mind would fall in love,” Akiskal says. Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder -and in the blind quest to land what we perceive to be the perfect mate. Call it serotonin-induced delusion. But it works.
We all know what it feels like -intense desire coupled with unquenched and unbridled passion. But what actually causes it? A unique chemical process fires up lust (which we’ll define as a carnal longing gratified by sex alone). Both romantic love and lust share the fact that they are ultimately biochemical, governed by hormones, neurotransmitters, and other substances that interact in complicated ways to create familiar sensations. However, testosterone and estrogen top the list of causal agents for the throbbing, aching need for sex.