This Is What Happens to Your Brain When You’re in Love

This Is What Happens to Your Brain When You’re in Love
16.02.2024
  • When you first fall in love, your brain releases chemicals and hormones that make you feel a rollercoaster of emotions.
  • These hormones also cause behavioral changes. You might change your habits to spend more time with your partner or change your style to better fit your partner’s.
  • Shared laughter and intentionally activating the brain’s reward system are important for long-term relationships.

Romantic love can make you feel safe and out of control at the same time, much like you’re on drugs.

In a 2008 TedTalk called “The Brain in Love,” the biological anthropologist Helen Fisher described romantic love as an “obsession,” “drive,” and “addiction.”

Fisher and her colleagues conducted multiple functional MRI (fMRI) studies that examined brain scans of people who said they were in love. They found that certain parts of the brain, specifically the right ventral tegmental area and the right caudate nucleus, were activated when the participants were shown pictures of the individuals they were in love with.1

These parts of the brain are involved in the reward system and the release of dopamine, a brain chemical known as the “happy hormone.”

Lucy L. Brown, PhD, a neuroscientist who worked with Fisher and co-founded the website The Anatomy of Love, told Verywell that love is similar to a “drug high.”

“As a matter of fact, it is using the same system that cocaine uses to make us feel high,” Brown said.

What Happens to Your Brain When You’re in Love?

Brain chemicals like the “love hormone” oxytocin, vasopressin, norepinephrine, and opioids are stimulated when you’re in love.

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Norepinephrine, which plays a role in your body’s fight-or-flight response, is accountable for the elevated heart rate, sweating, and anxiety when you first fall in love.

 But vasopressin and oxytocin are the hormones that help form a deep connection and motivate defensive behaviors that protect your partner or family from danger.

These hormones all interact with dopamine, which is essential for feeling the high and dive of romantic love, according to Brown.

“Another way to think about it is that romantic love is really a survival system. It’s part of that basic set of behaviors that we need to survive, and along with the sex drive, to pass on our genes,” Brown said.

Love doesn’t only cause hormonal changes in your brain and body, but it also activates behaviors that facilitate a relationship, according to a recent study published in Behavioral Sciences. You might be more willing to change your routine to prioritize your partner or even change your clothing, mannerisms, and values to make yourself more desirable to your loved one.

“Oxytocin and dopamine work together to make our loved one take on a ‘special meaning.’ It makes information about our loved ones particularly important for the brain,” Adam Bode, B Psych (Hons)/ LLB, the lead author of the study and a PhD candidate in biological anthropology at Australian National University, told Verywell in an email.

This study was the first to examine the relationship between romantic love and the behavioral activation system, which is involved with rewards and motivation.

“While romantic love is normally associated with strong emotions, at its simplest, it’s really about behavior. We experience strong thoughts and feelings for the purpose of making us behave in a particular way around our loved one,” Bode said.

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What Keeps Long-Term Couples Together?

For couples to stay together, they need more than just brain chemistry.

Robert W. Levenson, PhD, a psychology professor at UC Berkeley who studied a group of about 150 long-term first marriages for over 20 years, said that the ability of couples to soothe each other and calm down when things get heated is important for strong marriages.

“Humor, if used skillfully, is one of these ways that we do calm each other down, and it can be very effective,” Levenson told Verywell.

When you say you’re looking for someone with a good sense of humor, Levenson said, it can mean that you’re looking for someone who “has the skills to help calm my nervous system down.”

During intense moments of conflict, the partners must be able to share moments of laughter and positive emotion together for the automatic nervous system to cool down, he added.

While knowing how to navigate arguments is important for strong relationships, Brown said long-term partners who want to keep the romantic spark alive must continue activating the brain’s reward system intentionally. This could be scheduling date nights or cuddling in bed.

For some, romantic love seems more like a spiritual experience, and it cannot be explained by neuroscience. But Brown said understanding how romantic love works wouldn’t take away the pleasure.

“We were all born to experience magic, awe, and wonder—and this is all part of it,” Brown said. “Knowing about these systems doesn’t reduce your feelings of magic.”

Takeaway Note

Hormones and neurotransmitters are part of romantic love, but long-term couples have to put in some effort to keep their spark alive. Safe communication, date nights, and shared laughter can help keep relationships strong.

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