There is nothing like watching Night at the Roxybury’s to remind me of that great existential question: What is love? It is a classic—that both male and female scholars and the rapper, Fat Joe, have poured over for centuries. Love is this, love is that. Numerous generalizations have been used to describe it. The Beatles told us that all we need is love. Owen Wilson, in Wedding Crashers, reveals that true love is the soul’s recognition of its counterpoint in another. Then, he says he read it on a bumper sticker. Oh well, it’s still sweet.
But what is it, really? Is love the objective truth that we hold it up to be? That poets and romantics have lauded or admonished in their works? Or is love merely the individual manifestation of emotion? Arguments can be made for both, and seem true. But thanks to discoveries in modern neuroscience, scientists are beginning to understand the true nature of love. Or, in better words, the true chemistry of love.
Dr. Louann Brizendine writes in her book, The Female Brain, “Passionately being in love or so-called infatuation-love is now a documented brain state. It shares brain circuits with states of obsession, mania, intoxication, thirst, and hunger. It is not an emotion, but it does intensify or decreases other emotions. The being-in-love circuits are primarily a motivation system, which is different from the brain’s sex drive area but overlaps with it. This fevered brain activity runs on hormones and neurochemicals such as dopamine (feel-good brain chemical—a high), estrogen (queen chemical—all powerful), oxytocin (triggers trust circuits, peaceful and calming), and testosterone (sexual drive, forceful seducer).”
This provides an interesting insight into why individuals can become “love-addicts.” During this brain state, the amygdala—the fear center of the brain—and the anterior cingulate cortex—the brain’s worrying and critical thinking system—are turned down by these love circuits. The effect, essentially, is the same that Ecstasy has on the brain—individuals become less wary of strangers and new environments. Love also triggers classic symptoms similar to initial effects of drugs such as amphetamines, cocaine, and opiates, as these trigger the brain’s reward circuit (dopamine, serotonin, acetylcholine, norepinephrine, and oxytocin).
Brizendine also claims that this explains why we experience a “honeymoon stage” in a relationship. And why the first few months are so thrilling. Once we start constantly being physically close to a partner, our brains release oxytocin and dopamine, thus making us feel like all we want to do is lay in bed all day and cuddle. She also details why after about 6-8 months of this, we stop feeling so giddy. It primarily has to do with the reward circuits shutting down, and the commitment circuits starting up. These release higher amounts of oxytocin, which brings a lasting sense of peace, calm, and connection, instead of the wired, sexual drive of dopamine, testosterone and estrogen.
This is a rather brief description, but to find out more, read The Female Brain by Louann Brizendine. Also, Why We Love by Helen Fisher.