Neuroscience of Love

On October 7, 2012

We all have our ideas of what song captures the magic of love best, but we cannot articulate what exactly makes us love. Recently, The Brian Lehrer Radio Show hosted an interesting discussion on the neuroscience of love (falling in and out of love). His guests were Larry Young (professor of psychiatry at Emory University, director of its Center for Translational Social Neuroscience) and Brian Alexander (science journalist) and they discussed their search for a “grand unified theory” of love from their book The Chemistry Between Us: Love, Sex, and the Science of Attraction and I will highlight below some interesting parts of this discussion.

Is love just a chemical reaction?
Love is not just a chemical reaction, but certainly chemicals are involved, and in the last years they have figured out a number of pathways that are involved in creating this complex emotion.
The biochemisty of love
When we are with our partners and we are experiencing that love feeling, there is dopamine being released, which gives us that feeling of joy. Also, oxytocin is a molecule that is produced in the brain and created love between mothers and offsprings and also between partners. All this act together on specific parts of our brain in order to create this complex emotions that we call love.
There are differences between the male brain and the female brain, does this mean that we fall in love in different ways?
There may be some differences, and oxytocin seems to be playing an important role for the female bounding to the male, producing a nurturing kind of bound, like a maternal bound. For the males, it is another molecule called vasopressin, which is usually involved in territorial kinds of behaviors, so the authors think that maybe the male bound to the female is more an extension of a territorial behavior. The neuroscience of physical attraction, opposed to emotional attraction doesn’t lead to that bound, for some reason. (Learn more about the differences between the female brain and the male brain here)
What is the biochemistry of falling out of love?
Over the time, we have less dopamine released, but we also have an increase of a molecule called CRF (brain corticotropin-releasing factor), which creates an aversive unpleasant feeling when we are away from our partner (that drives us back together). So they think that this molecule helps people maintain these bound after the excitement is gone.
Where does infidelity come in, biochemically?
Among animals, infidelity is a very natural process, even among monogamus species, so they think this is something that is programmed in our genome, for us to engage in this behavior, and there are a couple of genes that have been found in humans, that are able to predict how often they would have this extramarital affairs. So we don’t know the precise details of the chemistry of infidelity, but we know genes that tend to push us in that directions.
Falling in love is one thing, but what happens when one falls out of love?
Their hypothesis is that love is actually an addiction, very similar to a drug addiction. And just like a drug addict, we fall out of love with this drug and yet still continue to use the drug. There is a similar reaction in people, so being in love is like putting a gun to your head. We still want to be with a person, even if we don’t feel that level of passion anymore, so when we say “fall out of love”, this is what people are usually talking about. It’s not that they are going to feel comfortable or happy when they have left somebody, they will still feel a big disturbance. We may conclude rationally that they shouldn’t be with this person anymore, that the feelings have changed or the person has change, and yet, even if someone initiates a divorce, they are miserable. And men suffer from this break-ups more than women do, as women have a much better sort of social network and reach out for aid more than men do in these sorts of cases. Men tend to suffer more alone and as a result, they experience more stress, the CRF (brain corticotropin-releasing factor) is more active in men, they act more anxious, because it’s not moderated by interaction with other people, and that creates high blood pressure.
By understanding the biology of relationships and love, the authors hope to be able to translate that into new treatments for disorders like autism, or help people in their relationships.

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