Love on the Brain

The evidence of the chemical reactions and brain activity involved in love, suggests that we may not be as in control of our feelings as we think.

14 February 2019

love on the brain

By Taylor Gardner, Researcher & MA student at Goldsmiths, University of London

We often consider emotions as having less importance than rationality and logic. However, recent research in the field of neuroscience has shown that romantic love involves something more concrete and measurable than fleeting feelings and desires.

The Brain in Love: Proof of Love’s Addictiveness

Biological anthropologist and human behaviour expert Helen Fisher conducted a study where over 75 people were put into an fMRI brain scanner to analyse the brain circuitry of romantic love. Among the participants, 17 had just fallen madly in love, 15 had recently broken up and 17 reported that they were still in love after an average of 21 years of marriage.

The research found that the brain scans of participants who were “madly in love,” showed activity in a small factory near the base of the brain called the ventral tegmental area (VTA) and in cells known as the A10 cells, which create and distribute dopamine to multiple brain regions.

The VTA is part of the brain’s reward system, which explains these “feel good” emotions that arise when we are in love. The activity in the VTA occurs on a level below our cognitive thinking and is often referred to as “the reptilian core of the brain” associated with wanting, focus and craving, suggesting our lack of autonomy and self-control when it comes to love. This is the same brain region which becomes active when exposed to recreational drugs.

According to Fisher “romantic love is an addiction, a perfectly wonderful addiction when it is going well, and a perfectly horrible addiction when it is going poorly.” She backs this up by drawing attention to the similar characteristics between love and addiction, including: tolerance, withdrawal and relapse.

What Motivates Love?

Fisher believes that when it comes to love we are guided by three distinct emotion-motivation systems in the brain; lust, attraction and attachment. She suggests that these systems have evolved to direct and control our behaviour and encourage mating, reproduction and parenting. The three systems affect different parts of the brain: Lust is primarily associated with estrogens and androgens. Attraction elevates levels of dopamine and norepinephrine and decrease levels of serotonin. Finally, the Attachment stage of love creates activity in the brain associated primarily with the neuropeptides, oxytocin and vasopressin.

What are the dangers?

 The intensity of our feelings can often be dangerous. Fisher argues that physical intimacy can drive up dopamine in the brain and create premature feelings of attachment. This leads to complications when it comes to our contemporary hook-up culture, where attachments may form before a relationship does. According to Fisher, “Casual sex isn’t always casual, it can trigger a host of powerful feelings.”

In some sense when engaging in casual intimacy we can trick our brain into providing the feelings and rewards that come from long term love, without the effort and commitment of a relationship.

The evidence of the chemical reactions and brain activity involved in love, suggests that we may not be as in control of our feelings as we think. In some ways we are helpless against love, as we cannot overcome or disassociate ourselves from the chemical reactions in our brains. Though love can be overpowering, overbearing and at times completely out of our control, it is safe to say that there are worse things to become addicted to.