The Physiology of Falling in Love

Ah, romantic love; that all-consuming, butterflies-in-your-stomach feeling you so enjoy when you first fall in love with someone. New lovers attribute their passionate feelings to matters of the heart. However, scientists are unraveling the science of falling in love and linking it directly to the brain.

When We Fall in Love...

Romantic love triggers reward systems in the brain. When we fall in love, our body releases chemicals-neurotransmitters-that make us feel good. This is the first step in the process of bonding, which is nature's design to perpetuate the species.

Neurotransmitters form in our brain and then our brain sends them out to the rest of the body. While many neurochemicals play a role, three in particular make up the chemicals of love.

Norepinephrine. This neurotransmitter may not be familiar to you, but its alternative name probably is. Noradrenaline causes your heart to race and your palms to sweat when you are emotionally charged. High levels of norepinephrine increase our experience of joy and reduce our appetite (that's why falling in love is a great way to lose weight).

Dopamine. Dopamine stimulates pleasure centers in the brain, producing feelings of euphoria and increasing sociability. It's the precursor to the third primary love chemical, phenylethylamine.

Phenylethylamine. This neurotransmitter prompts the body to release large quantities of dopamine and norepinephrine and increases our physical and emotional energy.

Other chemicals also play an important role in falling in love. Oxytocin, which is present in high levels in female orgasm, is called the cuddle hormone. It's linked to early socialization, social cognition, and trust. People who have recently fallen in love also have lower levels of serotonin, which is also low in people with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Low levels of serotonin may explain why we become so preoccupied with our new lover.

Imaging studies of the brain show that love lights up pleasure centers in the brain; the same pleasure centers involved in drug addiction.

Understanding what really happens when we fall in love helps social scientists explain our sometimes-unexplainable behavior. A failed romance causes emotional stress and depression. Surprisingly, when a lover dumps us, the activity in our brain related to romantic love actually kicks into high gear. Scientists speculate that the reaction to romantic rejection is nature's way of fighting for survival of the species.

While early love causes a whirlwind of chemical activity, a year or two later, these hormonal changes have virtually disappeared, even when the relationship endures.


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