Science & Technology
Must be Love on the Brain
By Christina Ossa
Image provided by Shuttershock
With Valentine’s Day passing and many people in developing or long-term relationships, the question rises, where exactly does love affect our bodies? Love's most significant effect on our bodies is within several brain regions. The brain is vast, and, to some extent, confusing; we still only know around 10% of how the brain functions, but what we do know well is that love makes people do crazy things. Love is almost like a drug: intoxicating, and more of a phenomenon than anything. Even the most level-headed, practical people can fall victim to being absorbed by love.
The Honeymoon Stage (Neurologically)
Where exactly does love affect our brains? Why does our brain sometimes react to our deep feelings peculiarly? Well, it depends on what stage of love one is in to truly determine which part of our brains is taking the lead on controlling our emotions and reactions. During the early stages of love, the areas of the brain known as the ventral tegmental area (VTA) and caudate nucleus control your dopamine levels, better known as the “feel good” neurotransmitter. Early into a relationship, you experience the “honeymoon phase,” not only because we as humans crave new things but also because your VTA and caudate nucleus release dopamine in every interaction you have with your loved one. You love spending time around this person and can’t get enough of them because your VTA and caudate nucleus are spewing dopamine; even if the intense feelings are true, they are also biologically caused since the body is a fiend for dopamine at times causing you to feel almost a “high” from your loved one.
Testosterone and estrogen are hormones released by the pituitary gland that causes the sex drive to activate in the early stages of relationships, which can also explain the addictive feelings that the honeymoon stage creates. The pituitary gland also releases oxytocin, another “feel good” hormone associated with love. The hypothalamus creates this hormone known as the “love hormone”. It is highly associated with love since, once released into the bloodstream, it causes many positive effects, such as activation of sex drive (in conjunction with testosterone and estrogen) and building of recognition, trust, romantic attraction, and even parent-infant bonding.
All these hormones and neurotransmitters work together, forming the reward system in our brain. Other areas of the brain also releasing these hormones and neurotransmitters are the cerebral cortex, the medial insula, the anterior cingulate, the hippocampus, and (in the subcortex) parts of the striatum and also possibly the accumbens. Scientists are actually unsure of how these parts work together to cause us to act “lovey-dovey” with our loved ones. But, the most important thing to note about these areas is that they make up our reward system in addition to the VTA, pituitary gland, hypothalamus, and caudate nucleus.
Not Just a Biological Phase
If these strong feelings persist past the honeymoon stage, well, not only will one have a lifetime or long-term supply of dopamine and hormones, but also, you’ll have a healthy (hopefully) way of deflecting stressors and decreasing pain/negative feelings. Your VTA intensifies as more and more dopamine is released when you’re around this person; you’ll feel as though you’re immune to bad feelings, or at the very least, you’ll feel safe since you have a safety net of dopamine to either come home to or talk to at any moment.
Dopamine is extremely important to long-term relationships. In a study, many married couples still felt intense “honeymoon stage” love for each other. They showed very similar activity to the honeymoon stage in dopamine-rich areas such as the VTA. Therefore, if you want to know if you genuinely have a “deep love” and not just a honeymoon stage fizzled relationship, think back to those dopamine-rich moments you’ve had with your partner early on. Are they still the same now as they were before?
Obviously, a relationship matures and grows over time. But based on this study on married couples, the brain sometimes can’t tell the difference between these “stages”. Biologically, love seems to remain stable in the brain when one in a long-term, healthy relationship (or unhealthy too, which can be the issue in many abusive or toxic relationships). So, ask yourself throughout your relationship periodically, do you still have those feelings or has your relationship truly fizzled out?
As much as many of us would love for this love to persist throughout our lives (as with drugs – you get used to the high), sometimes it doesn’t, and it’s heartbreaking. Whether the feelings are still there or fizzled out, your brain essentially experiences withdrawal after a breakup. But why do we experience these intense moments? Your brain and body exhibit behaviors unnatural to your usual personality during break-ups because break-ups activate your fight or flight response, thanks to a structure in the brain known as the amygdala. The amygdala bypasses the rationale of your brain and thoughts as it perceives danger and life-or-death situations. Clearly, while a break-up may be painful, it is not simply “life-or-death.” But your brain quite literally treats it as such. So, when in a breakup, you melt down because your amygdala is causing your body to act as if it were dying. That withdrawal of love is so powerful that it truly causes our bodies to act in a life-or-death manner.
The withdrawal can persist for months in unwanted breakups, as shown by a study that scanned the activity in the brains of young adults who experienced unwanted breakups and still felt love for their people. The individuals still sent their loved one's texts and even felt depressed for months. Also, when shown pictures of their ex-partners, the reward areas of the brain (VTA, ventral striatum, and nucleus accumbens) were activated, and dopamine was released. So, even if you’ve been broken up with a person for months, you can still feel that love and dopamine rush when seeing them or even looking at a picture of them.
Another series of studies showed that the pain of heartbreak could even manifest as physical pain like a severe burn or broken arm. The areas of the brain, such as the primary somatosensory cortex (S1), the secondary somatosensory cortex (S2), the anterior cingulated cortex, the insular cortex, the and the prefrontal cortex, and the thalamus, are activated as a result of the pain of heartbreak. These areas of the brain are associated with pain and activate when you are in physical pain, so even in breakups, it can be as if you’ve broken your arm. Endorphins are released as a result of the pain, and the pain persists until the endorphins act to calm your body and mind down.
Love is a Biologically Taxing Process
Love is complicated, even biologically. There’s still so much to learn about how love manifests in our brains and bodies, but the most crucial advice to take away is to enjoy love while it lasts. If it does last, keep enjoying it. Be with your loved one, endorse those dopamine releases, and enjoy the moment. And if that love ends, if you experience the crash, know that it’s normal and okay to feel those heart-wrenching emotions and pain. Think of it like a broken arm: you need time to heal it. So, love is not just an experience that possesses our brains and causes our bodies to act out of wack. It’s complicated but beautiful. Therefore, appreciate love because your body and brain work very hard to make it happen.
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