Je serai poète et toi poésie. –Francois Coppee
It comes as no mystery that love is one of the most compelling, sought-after, and empirically misunderstood states of being in our eternal universe. It is the quintessential glue that impassions our way of life. The rules that govern its existence no more in our control than the unavoidable consequences that birth from it. And up until the end of the twentieth century, there was very limited scientific technology that could explore the physiological mysteries of the emotional mind.
So, why is love so important anyway?
For anyone who has been madly in love, they will most probably describe its profound effect as something along the lines of an incomprehensible divinity that bypasses all reason, leaving you restless from an abundance of confidence and sensation. However, upon receiving such a gift there is undoubtedly the risk of losing it: a challenge that can be described as an emptiness of the soul, and a madness of the heart.
This word “love”, simple in form, is quite possibly life’s most complex lesson. It can leave you blind, and yet allow you to feel color. It will possess your heart, but free your mind. It leaves you breathless, yet makes air taste sweet. It closes your ears to reason, but fills your blood with music.
Toni Morrison, no stranger to this word, once said: “You do not deserve love because you want it. You can only earn – by practice and careful contemplation – the right to express it and you have to learn how to accept it.”
You could find anything at every corner of the world about love, and most likely you will find something you can relate to. But, what you won’t find is the answer to your unique reality of love—because reality is the personalized perception of our brains—and, in spite what science teaches us, every brain sees different.
With that said, I’m going to give you the low down on the neuroscience of love. It is meant to serve as an educational tool for understanding YOUR experiences with the heart’s greatest teacher.
Love at first sight
It’s no coincidence that falling in love is like getting hit by a train. The chemical dance party that occurs in your brain when the moment presents itself is an evolutionary courting urge that classifies partner choice. Regardless from what part of the world you’re from, there are specific non-verbal sexual cues that excite both males and females for reproductive partner bonding…
- Broad shoulders
- Defined jawline
- Large breasts
- Hips-to-waist ratio
- Seductive gait
- Symmetrical face
But, does love at first sight really happen?
Biologically speaking, yes! Whether you stick around and reproduce with that person, not always. In the novel We Are Our Brains, D.F. Swaab points out that when you are passionately involved in choosing whom to start a family with you would think the cerebral cortex (the executive decision-making/planning/assessment part of the brain) would be involved. Yet, during deep infatuation the deeper brain regions near the base (involved in unconscious processes) are highly activated when we exclusively put all our attention and energy into one person. Studies have shown through brains scans of people who had just fallen in love that the reward circuitry (dopamine) was exceptionally involved. This means locating a sustainable partner translates to a highly pleasure sensation.
Helen Fischer, the guru of neuro-romance, describes this irrevocable bond best:
“No wonder lovers talk all night or walk till dawn, write extravagant poetry and self-revealing e-mails, cross continents or oceans to hug for just a weekend, change jobs or lifestyles, even die for one another. Drenched in chemicals that bestow focus, stamina and vigor, and driven by the motivating engine of the brain, lovers succumb to a Herculean courting urge.”
Unfortunately, if you remember from “The Brain on Social Media” post, these pleasure centers are conjointly involved with addiction, which illustrates the severe withdrawal symptoms we experience from break-ups.
Is finding the one really all about pleasure?
Reluctantly, being in love isn’t all about pleasure, it’s stressful too! People who first fall in love produce increased amounts of the stress hormone, cortisol. But, I mean, that shouldn’t come to any of us as a surprise, given the nature of modern dating….just kidding. But, not really.
It isn’t until the love affair has persisted for a certain amount of time that the unconscious, primal part of our brain passes the reigns to the pre-frontal cortex (the more sensible part of the brain) and diminishes the influx of cortisol and dopamine. Hence, your choice of Mr./ Ms. Right should more likely be decided after the infatuation phase.
An Orgasm Begins in the Brain and ends....also in the Brain
Although sex is not the core of our love for someone, it’s definitely a positive reinforcement—especially if the person you are making love with is intrinsically knowledgeable about your bodies needs. And even with great connection, the extent of sexual desire and arousal within a person depends on their DNA.
The sensitivity of our sexual organs translates the sensory information via the spinal cord to the central structure for erotic sensory processing: the ventral tegmental area. Once a certain amount of stimulation hits a threshold, the body reaches a climax of dopamine release into the nucleus accumbens and oxytocin (the cuddle hormone) into the hypothalamus (which controls autonomic functions such as hunger, thirst, body temperature, and sexual activity). Immediately after an orgasm is reached, there is a release of opiates (endorphins) into the brain. As a result, the ultimate promotion of love, security, and bonding is achieved between both partners.
The hormone oxytocin, as many people are familiar with, is an ancient chemical that initiates pro-social behaviors, develops extreme trust between couples that are having a family, and facilitates sperm and egg transport. As expected, this hormone is extremely addicting, and only a 20 second hug would be enough to consider a stranger more than just that.
D.F. Swaab describes it best: “All of these substances are so addictive that the number of people on earth has now swelled to seven billion.”
However, recent research suggests that this bubbly, innocent hormone has a dark side: it can cause jealousy, envy, and suspicion. Simone Shamay-Tsoory of the University of Haifa states, "…when the person's association is positive, oxytocin bolsters pro-social behaviors; when the association is negative, the hormone increases negative sentiments".
Neuroscientist Gert Holstege was bold enough to persuade partners to induce orgasms in their lovers who were under a brain scanner. Evidence showed that different areas of the brain are activated for men and women during an orgasm. In women, the activity was focused in the motor and sensory areas of the cerebral cortex. While in the male brain the occipito-temporal cortex (involved in visual-object processing) and insular cortex (which controls heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure, and emotions/feelings of romance, love, and conscious desires…like sex, food, and drug cravings).
What does this say about orgasms in men and women? Well…next time your man is hungry, he is probably also craving affection. Jokes aside…
It implies that sensual playfulness, touch, and movement are big turn-ons for women, whereas men are more visual, primal creatures and are more likely to associate love with sex. Moreover, because the insular cortex controls blood pressure, it makes sense that studies have shown sex to be a very healthy alternative for lowering blood pressure in men.
Now, while these scans have shown that both men and women achieve the same outcome but through different pathways in the brain, it has also shown incredible similarities in activity and inhibition as well. Both sexes showed to have extensive firing in the cerebellum, which regulates muscle contractions during orgasms, while the prefrontal and temporal cortices became less active, to focus the sexual behavior on being driven and uninhibited.
What happens to your brain now that you are a Mom and Dad?
The moment a woman becomes pregnant, she is programmed for maternal behavior. These chemical changes in mothers are forever. During pregnancy, the pituitary gland in the brain produces prolactin, which cues nesting behavior. Moms begin to feel the grand necessity for preparing the home and family lifestyle for the arrival of her newborn. What’s interesting is that adult male rats that were injected with prolactin began to show the same behavior, cleaning and building the nest.
I hope I didn’t give some wives any ideas…
Toward the end of pregnancy, oxytocin fills the brains of the mother and newborn. This influx of the “bonding hormone” boosts milk production, speeds up labor, and helps with contractions. Once the child is born, there is an irrevocable tie with the mother. So much so, that just talking to a calming mother has shown to increase oxytocin levels in teenagers, inhibiting stress pathways.
If this warm interaction between the mother and child is not strengthened over the course of development, there will no longer be a rise in oxytocin levels.
- Studies have shown women who have been neglected and/or abused to have significantly low oxytocin in their brains.
Similar to new mothers, fathers begin to feel changes in their brain chemistry and behavior immediately during onset of pregnancy. His prolactin levels rise, stimulating caring behavior, while testosterone levels decline, reducing aggression against the newborn. Although how these changes come about is not fully understood, the scent of the pregnant partner may play a significant role.
Along with increases in 'caring' hormones, males increase the number of synapses (brain connections) in the pre-frontal cortex to aide the new father in performing new tasks and social behaviors!
Love is our universal language. Without it, the meaning of our perceptions and ties with the living world would be nonexistent. So, no matter how painful losing love may be, just remember that the bond you shared with someone you love will always be there, and that it has helped you become a more empathetic and caring human being. Love’s greatest lesson is that lasting relationships are earned, and we must cherish its beautiful ups and downs. With enough practice and patience, we will all discover an unconditional union, that is devoid of a price tag, social status, and insecurity.