Star-crossed lovers, moonlight and roses, sleepless nights, ecstatic reunions, ah…the stuff of falling in love.
Sounds more romantic than dopamine response system, serotonin high, and oxytocin effect, right? Unless you’re a science geek, in which case you might think it obvious that falling in love is, at least in large part, a chemical process.
Physical attraction plays a pivotal role in falling in love, but there’s more to the story, since we don’t fall in love with everyone we’re attracted to. I won’t attempt to give an exhaustive account of what happens when we fall in love, instead we’ll take a brief foray into the world of drugs, sexual attraction and love.
You might be thinking of champagne, or red wine, or the joint you shared with your lover, but that’s not what I mean. I’m referring to endogenous drugs, ones that your body produces, like dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin. The euphoria of falling in love can be explained (at least in part) by effects of serotonin and dopamine in the body; quite literally you get high on love.
Similar to the high that gamblers get from their addiction, cokeheads when they snort and clubbers rolling on E. As anyone whose taken E knows, it’s not called being ‘loved up’ for nothing; the high is beautiful, heart-expanding and euphoric. Exactly like being crazy in love.
Being high on Ecstasy is like being high on love because the same chemicals are coursing through your system: serotonin and oxytocin in particular and a little less dopamine. Although once you’ve taken E a few times, you could get a dopamine rush from the anticipation of taking it later that night and the high that will ensue, kind of like the thrill of anticipation you get when you’re looking forward to seeing your new lover later in the day.
Dopamine is part of the mesolimbic reward system, the brain’s pleasure center. Neuroscientists use the term “appetitive pleasure” to describe the feelings associated with dopamine release, it’s exciting and raises our tension level, like foreplay, or the delightful anxiety-tinged anticipation of something you know you’ll enjoy. The sensation of having butterflies in your tummy is an effect of dopamine.
When the brain’s pleasure centers are turned on everything we experience gives us pleasure, hence the euphoria of being in love and the attendant sense that everything we experience is a source of delight. Since dopamine pathways essentially become neural pathways, which are the neurophysiological substrate of memories, pleasurable experiences and associations we have during those heady days of falling in love get hardwired into our brains. This is why couples have special “our songs” that remind them of falling in love.
While dopamine is associated with the exhilaration of falling in love, oxytocin is responsible for the warm, fuzzy feelings of empathy and trust that come with intimacy and attachment. Released by the pituitary gland, oxytocin helps us form pair bonds; it’s the soft, tender afterglow of lovemaking.
Oxytocin is also released after ingesting MDMA (ecstasy), which is why people on E report experiencing increased feelings of trust, empathy and connection with others. And it’s released during uterine contractions in pregnant women and during breastfeeding to enhance the mother’s feelings of tenderness towards her baby. In fact, elevated estrogen levels during pregnancy increase oxytocin receptors in the expectant mother’s brain so that she will be flooded with maternal feelings of attachment.
Just as with dopamine, oxytocin pathways become neural pathways and their activation causes checmical release and the ensuant feeling of well being. Smells, sounds, anything that elicits a strong somatic memory can stimulate the process. So if you’re separated from your long-term partner, finding an item of clothing with their odor can be a source of comfort and ease. Same goes with hearing their voice on the telephone. Also when you have a long, tight hug with a loved one, you instantly feel better as the effects of oxytocin reverberate throughout the body.
Oxytocin increases trust and reduces anxiety and fear by inhibiting the over-zealous amygdala. The amygdala is a set of neurons that acts as the “watchdog” of the external world, monitoring sensory data to evaluate whether it represents a threat. More simply, the amygdala recognizes tigers and guns and interpersonal hostility as dangerous and transmits a chemical message to the hypothalamus gland, which in turn communicates with the autonomic nervous system, which responds by activating either the “fight or flight” or “relaxation response.”
“Fight or flight” is the body’s response to stress, we experience its affects as heightened survival mode. This isn’t the enjoyable, almost-anxiety of dopamine-drenched excitement, it’s a more of a destabilizing, disconcerting anxiety characterized by contraction and tension. By contrast, the “relaxation response” generates feeling of spaciousness, well being, ease and contentment. You know how you feel after an orgasm? That’s the relaxation response.
Our physiological states give rise to our emotional experiences. Stress hormones, like cortisol, released in stressful situations yield emotions like fear, anger and anxiety. Feel-good hormones, like dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin correlate with positive emotional states: excitement, satisfaction, empathy, open-hearted connection and trust.
Once the neural patterns are established and the emotional experiences and corresponding physiological symptoms are familiar to us, we associate them with particular situations and people. And just as we crave chemicals like caffeine, nicotine, and cocaine, we crave the positive jolt we get from being with people we love, who make us feel understood and accepted, not to mention the delicious secret frisson of excitement knowing your lover awaits followed by the balmy afterglow of love’s promise made good.
So next time you crave your lover’s touch, the soft caress of their voice, the warmth of their embrace, know that you’re in good company. Like addicts everywhere you’re in thrall to the very real physiological and emotional effects of chemicals flowing through your body.
As Robert Palmer said:
Your lights are on, but you’re not home
Your mind is not your own
Your heart sweats, your body shakes
Another kiss is what it takes.
You like to think that you’re immune to the stuff…oh yeah
It’s closer to the truth to say you can’t get enough
You know you’re gonna have to face it
You’re addicted to love.
Editor: Kate Bartolotta