Not really a matter of the heart: The science behind love and attraction
Studies have shown how the brain reacts to love - research data in biochemistry support the idea that we go through extreme emotions in the pursuit of love.
The thrill of having a crush is familiar. The heart thumps in the chest, palms get clammy, words become jumbled and there is a general giddiness. You go out of your way to catch a glimpse of the person, look for excuses to start a conversation, try your best to make them laugh and respond to you. It can brighten up your day, and you may feel euphoric, but you may also feel helpless and a little more sensitive than you like. Concentrating and getting things done may become a tedious chore.
Not the heart but the brain
It turns out that metaphors and hyperbole surrounding love do hold water. Studies in the past decades have shown how the brain reacts to love - research findings in biochemistry support the idea that we go through extreme emotions in the pursuit of love.
The primacy of infatuation
Let’s start at the beginning. You come across someone you find instantly attractive, feeling the primitive emotion of lust take over. The hypothalamus — a tiny part of the brain — signals to the body to produce the sex hormone (testosterone and estrogen), stimulating the genitals as well as the sweat glands. The arousal is immediate, but so is the clamminess and sweating. An uptake in testosterone will also make you more alert and aggressive - feelings of revitalisation and energy will flood the body.
Why love doesn't let you eat or sleep
If the object of your infatuation is someone you see every day, say, in the metro, the body’s reward system will kick in. You may still be in the throes of lust, but at this stage, you will also be under the influence of a broader definition of attraction.
A major study conducted in 2005 examined 2,500 brains under an fMRI scanner. The participants were shown pictures of someone special followed by pictures of acquaintances. The ventral tegmental area (VTA) and the caudate nucleus, which stimulate the production of dopamine, the pleasure hormone, lit up on looking at photos of loved ones.
The feelings of euphoria are heightened on seeing or interacting with the person over and over again. This explains the helplessness of wanting to spend more time with someone you're crushing on, and craving their attention.
Additionally, there is a higher injection of norepinephrine (or adrenaline) in the body, which is responsible for the giddiness and restless energy of love. It can also cause insomnia and reduce hunger. So there you have it: science says that you are so "into" someone that you can’t sleep or eat.
The levels of serotonin (the happiness hormone) in the body also drop when you are attracted to someone. Lower levels of serotonin have also been observed in those with OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) - this can explain the intensity of the obsessiveness and preoccupation of attraction.
Love creates strong bonds
Let’s say that the stars aligned and you caught the eye of the metro commuter you like, and you form a healthy, loving relationship with that person. Now, the body releases oxytocin (also called the cuddle hormone) and vasopressin in response to longer-term companionship. This phase is known as "attachment" and well-founded feelings of trust and reliability support it. Interestingly, oxytocin is released during sex, breastfeeding and childbirth. While this may sound counterintuitive, these hormones lay the foundation for bonding and more fierce attachments.
It is incorrect to assume that longer-term companionship translates to lower intensity love. A recent study that looked at the brain activity of those who had been in a loving, romantic relationship for an average of 21 years, found that the reward centres in their brains also lit up at the mention of their loved ones.
While this may all sound like good news, most of us have also experienced the darker side of love. Crippling jealousy, insecurity, oversensitivity and heartbreak are all a part of the deal that is falling in love. Sexual arousal clouds a part of the prefrontal cortex which regulates critical thinking, self-awareness and rational behaviour - all this is partially responsible for the "crazed" state of being in love.
When we are in love, our brain produces dopamine - the "feel-good hormone". But our brain also rewards us by producing dopamine when we indulge in addictive behaviours, like using recreational drugs. So a withdrawal from the source of pleasure — love to a slightly less extent, one hopes, than drugs — brings with it significant struggles; the challenges of heartbreak are well documented and can disrupt life, at least in the short run. The grief of a breakup is not just the loss of a dear friend but also the loss of security and self-identity.
The oxytocin released by our body when we are in love does promote prosocial behaviours and feelings of camaraderie. But it can also be blinding. Herd mentality, group-think proliferate on the unexamined assumptions of society and the instinct to protect your own can paint outsiders with the broad brush of prejudice - so, you'll love anyone you perceive as being within your intimate circle and hate on anyone you feel challenges your core group. The key is to maintain a sense of objectivity so as not to let these more primal instincts dictate your actions.
The ups and downs of love are slowly being backed by science. Hopefully, as our knowledge and awareness surrounding this mystical force grow, we can forge stronger and healthier bonds with each other.
Read our Tips for the first time you have sex.
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