If you have ever been in a serious relationship, you know the symptoms: light headedness, upset stomach, loss of appetite, confusion, insomnia, obsessive thoughts and abnormally elevated mood. It’s not a new psychiatric disorder, its love! While our sexual motivation system drives us towards the opposite sex, the romantic attraction system enables us to focus our mating efforts on a preferred individual, Mr. or Ms. Right. Many factors such as timing, health, finances, childhood experiences and cultural forces play a role in triggering to whom one becomes attracted. Once all these factors are realized in a particular individual, our romantic attraction system takes over.
The primary neurochemicals in this neural system are dopamine, norepinepherine and serotonin. Dopamine could be referred to as the “pleasure chemical”. When released in the brain, it produces a feeling of ecstasy and bliss. It is most active in the areas of the brain related to reward and pleasure. These are the same areas involved in addiction, and that is why high levels of dopamine bring about a chemical rush similar to the effects of amphetamines. Norepinepherine is chemically related to adrenalin, and when released in the brain, causes a state of heightened excitement and focused attention. Serotonin is predominately an inhibitory neurochemical and is suppressed by dopamine activity. This means that when dopamine levels are high, serotonin levels are low. Low levels of serotonin in the brain bring about feelings of euphoria and obsessional thinking.
This is how the romantic attraction system works. When a potential mate that meets all of our necessary attraction criteria is found, the romantic attraction system causes dopamine and norpinepherine to be released in the brain. This flood of neurochemicals brings about a pleasurable feeling, heightened excitement and focused attention. Increasing dopamine activity causes serotonin levels in the brain to drop resulting in feelings of euphoria and obessional thoughts (not able to stop thinking about the person). This type of neural activation is perceived as very pleasurable and causes the individual to want to be near this special person again and again. In fact the mere thought of them brings about a similar rush of pleasurable neurochemicals. Your brain has you hooked. You simply can’t get enough of them because in a very real sense, you’re addicted.
Two recent brain imaging studies of people deeply in love found that when viewing a picture of their beloved, blood flow significantly increased in areas of the brain known to be involved in reward and craving and decreased in areas related to negative emotions such as sadness and fear. In other words the brains of people deeply in love do not look like those of people experiencing strong emotions or sexual arousal but instead like those of people using cocaine.
Biologically, this makes sense since the romantic attraction system uses the same neural mechanisms that are activated during the process of addiction. Given this extreme change in brain chemistry during the initial phases of romantic attraction what happens if the relationship doesn’t work out? Much like a drug addict unable to get a fix, the romantic who is deprived of the lover goes into neurochemical withdrawal as dopamine and norepinepherine levels plummet in the brain and serotonin levels rise. This can lead to sluggishness, dejection and depression; love withdrawal.
While it may sound as if our sexual and romantic behaviors are simply determined by a set of neurochemicals in the brain, we are actually in control. The prefrontal cortex (PFC) serves as the “brake” of our brain, allowing us to maintain control of our behavior despite strong instinctual desires and drives. The PFC is involved in a number of higher cognitive processes including attention, planning, organization, abstract reasoning and self-monitoring the most important, in the context of love, is what we refer to as social control. This is the ability to suppress emotional or sexual urges that if left unchecked could lead to socially unacceptable outcomes. So while our behaviors may be strongly influenced by neurochemistry, as described above, ultimately the sexual and romantic behaviors we display are the result of our own reason and choice.