Love has been compared to drugs so many times, so I won’t invent a new analogy (though I do think Beyonce does it best with her single “Drunk in Love”). There is, however, some truth to this oft-used allusion: Scientists have found that there is a predictable biochemical reaction to falling in love with someone. With the Valentine’s Day season approaching, it seemed only fitting to write about it.
It all starts with the neurotransmitter dopamine. A neurotransmitter is a chemical produced in our brains — depending on where it’s present in the brain, it may have different effects. You’ve probably heard of this chemical before; it’s actually quite well known for the role it plays in addictions. Though dopamine has a number of important functions in bodies, the one involved in love — and other addictions — is called the mesolimbic pathway. This particular pathway is the reward pathway; when you bite into a delicious piece of cake or win at a slot machine, dopamine surges through your brain. The same thing happens when you first fall in love or experience lust — whatever you want to call it.
Dopamine is powerful stuff. A few years ago, biological anthropologist Dr. Helen Fisher scanned several individuals’ brains while they were looking at pictures of their sweethearts. She found that of the many different regions of the brain that lit up, one of them was the same region that becomes activated by a cocaine rush.
But without norepinephrine, dopamine is useless.
Norepinephrine is another neurotransmitter; it provides us with focus, attention and directs the general euphoria provided by dopamine. Dopamine could have you in a cheerful mood, but when you see that special someone at a party and he or she immediately takes all your attention, that’s norepinephrine at work. In an interview on Radiolab, science reporter Neely Tucker from The Washington Post equated this neurotransmitter to physical passion and infatuation: It’s the drive that makes us literally want to cross that one person off your to-do list.
So while this is, in fact, the neurotransmitter that makes your eyes dilate and your pulse increase, if you’re like me it also means your palms get sweaty and you lose the ability to form complete, coherent sentences.
But have no fear! If you’re able to make it through those first awkward conversations to those first few dates (or however you get close to your significant other), there’s a chance the rushes of dopamine and norepinephrine will wear off into something more permanent: oxytocin.
Oxytocin is the attachment hormone, and in terms of romantic love, oxytocin is the difference between a fling and a long-term relationship. After you spend a lot of time with a partner, the spark becomes less exciting. And not because your significant other is boring; your relationship just isn’t new anymore. Some couples are dependent on the dopamine and norepinephrine to keep them going; when there’s no more left, they go their separate ways and look to start the chemical trip all over again. And that’s fine — assuming you can find someone else who pleases you, you’re in for another great high.
But for others, depleting levels of these first two neurotransmitters leads to the creation of a relationship that generates oxytocin. Oxytocin doesn’t have the same highs, but it provides the feeling of contentment and companionship associated with life partners. It’s a much more emotionally stable feeling, and it can come anywhere between six months and a year after seeing someone.
What we call love requires all three of these chemicals, though; one is not better than the others in any biological sense. I suppose it’s not very romantic to think of love as just another set of chemical reactions. It implies that when you swoon when your significant other remembered your favorite flowers or took you on a picnic or to that concert you’ve always wanted, it was all just some chemicals at play.
But there are two ways of making this fact hopeful: First, it takes some of the pressure off to find “the one.” Who knows how many people will trigger those chemicals for you? Second, it helps put breakups into context: We’re just going through a little withdrawal, but ultimately we’re going to be okay.
Happy Valentine’s Day. May your Feb. 14 be filled with all the neurotransmitters you deserve, and then some.
Originally printed in The Hoya