Love, Love, Love...
From an evolutionary perspective, falling in love is a biological process whose purpose may simply be the passing of genes to the next generation in an effort to perpetuate the species. As such, love may be viewed as a mix of neurotransmitters and hormones that regulate attraction, lust, and attachment, the three components of romantic love, according to Dr. Helen Fisher (1).
When Shakespeare states “Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind, And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind,” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) he is certainly onto something! When we are attracted to somebody, dopamine (one of the “feel-good” neurotransmitters) is released by the hypothalamus in the brain, producing various physical and emotional responses, giving us a feeling of exhilaration and an all-consuming desire to be with the person we are attracted to. At the same time, a reduction in serotonin (the neurotransmitter that affects mood and appetite) sometimes causes loss of appetite and insomnia. The released cortisol (the “stress hormone”) and norepinephrine (the “get-ready-for-action” hormone) give us a giddy feeling accompanied by sweating, an accelerated heart rate, flushing cheeks, and even anxiety. At the same time, these positive feelings neutralize the neural pathway responsible for negative emotions, preventing us from judging our new partner, hence the notion that love is blind.
Lust, on the other hand, is regulated by the sex hormones testosterone and estrogen. This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective, since the end-result of the whole process is reproduction. These hormones released by the male and female sex organs control sexual desire.
However, lust and attraction need some help if a long-term relationship is to develop. Attachment is achieved through the interaction between oxytocin (the “love” hormone) and vasopressin and is needed, from an evolutionary perspective, in order to protect and take care of the offspring, the idea being that two parents are better than one. Oxytocin is released during breastfeeding and childbirth, which helps strengthen the bond between mother and child. It is also released during sexual contact to help strengthen the romantic bond, leading to long term attachment. Release is also enhanced through skin contact and that’s why bear hugs are so comforting. Vasopressin is associated with aggressive behaviours needed to protect the other (and eventually, the offspring) from danger.
Break-ups cause all these chemicals to get out of balance and similarly to drug addiction withdrawal, cause symptoms of “heartbreak,” like anxiety, depression, lack of appetite, feelings of isolation, etc. Basically, a “broken heart” can heal by causing the release of oxytocin in the brain, literally and figuratively, as the heart needs oxytocin for its own protection and healing (2).
What’s the take-away from all this?
Love is good for the heart and the brain; it makes us feel happy, valued and fulfilled, giving our life meaning and purpose. Indulge in it! Make Valentine’s day your everyday.
Happy Valentine’s Day!
1. Fisher, H.E. Lust, attraction, and attachment in mammalian reproduction. Hum Nat 9, 23–52 (1998). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12110-998-1010-5
2. Carter, C.S. and Porges, S.W. (2013), The biochemistry of love: an oxytocin hypothesis. EMBO reports, 14: 12-16. doi:10.1038/embor.2012.191