Love explained through the brain
How a mixture of chemicals and hormones help fall in and out of love.
The first week of the new year is here and almost everyone is making resolutions. It’s a great time to be making all those things that you wanna do this year and achieve. But to me, it’s just been another day or an excuse to party, go out, stay with family and friends, and have a gala time. This week is definitely a good time to reflect on the past, carry forward great things you discovered, leave behind some things you want and just celebrate life.
These days I have been reading into how hormones actually impact our emotions. My previous article on focus covered dopamine. Today’s article is actually about what binds us all together. The feeling which makes us the craziest self. The feeling that makes us sad, happy, joyful, quirky, immature, and whatnot.
So, what does our brain have to do anything with how we feel when we feel the love? Everything! The journey from the first spark to the last tear is guided by a symphony of neurochemicals and brain systems.
The first stage: Infatuation
This is the stage when all your brain can do, is think about them. This passionate stage is when the dopamine in your body gets quite high when you are with them which makes you feel happy all the time. This burst of happiness gets addicting real fast and all you want to do is spend time with them. The credit for the release of dopamine goes to the VTA(ventral tegmental area) of your brain. This is the reward-processing and motivation hub of the brain, firing when you do things like eat a sweet treat, quench your thirst, etc.
At this stage, ever felt like you are not able to identify any faults in your partner? Or see them as the perfect specimen on Earth? Don’t worry it’s not your fault, almost every individual goes through this because the feeling of love overpowers all brain activities in your prefrontal cortex which is the logical, critical thinking part of your brain.
Have you ever felt that holding hands for the first time feels surreal? Well, you can say thanks to Oxytocin. Oxytocin is stimulated by touch, and by social trust. Holding hands stimulates the same, but when repeated over time, it can build up a circuit that easily triggers social trust.
The second stage: Attachment
The first stage only lasts for a few months, making way for the more long-lasting stage of love, known as attachment, or compassionate love.
Now that the honeymoon face is over, this is the time when you really start getting comfortable with your partner. Well, time does play a role, but your brain has hormones to help in this process as well. Oxytocin and vasopressin, also known as pair-bonding hormones really help in developing social trust, support and attachment. Also, the good thing about getting to this stage is that oxytocin can inhibit the release of stress hormones, which is why spending time with a loved one can feel so relaxing.
As early love's suspension of judgment fades, it can be replaced by a more honest understanding and deeper connection. Alternatively, this is the stage when your rose-colored glasses begin to lose their tint, problems in your relationship may become more evident.
The third stage: Breakup
No matter the reason a relationship ends, we can blame the pain that accompanies heartbreak on the brain. The distress of a breakup activates the insular cortex, a region that processes pain— both physical, like spraining your ankle, as well as social, like feelings of rejection. As days pass, you may find yourself once again daydreaming about or craving contact with your lost partner. The drive to reach out may feel overwhelming, like extreme hunger or thirst. When looking at photos of a former partner, heartbroken individuals again show increased activity in the VTA, the motivation and reward centre that drove feelings of longing during the initial stages of the relationship. This emotional whirlwind also likely activates your body’s alarm system, the stress axis, which leaves you feeling restless.
It has been proposed that love is not primarily an emotion but a motivation system (i.e., a system oriented around the planning and pursuit of a specific want or need) designed to enable suitors to build and maintain an intimate relationship with a specific mating partner.
Since all of this is still being developed in adolescence we tend to have the worst heartbreaks at that point. It’s only when these mature we tend to think through and get a hang of our enormous brain and its intricate system with waves of hormones, and tell it “All izz well”. Exercising, spending time with friends, or even listening to your favourite song can tame this heartbreak stress response, and trigger the release of feel-good hormones (dopamine). And the cycle continues.