Love is celebrated on February 14, when lovers express their affection with greetings and gifts. Given their similarities, it has been suggested that the holiday has origins in the Roman festival of Lupercalia, held in mid-February. The festival, which celebrated the coming of spring, included fertility rites and the pairing off of women with men.
Love is a powerful emotion. Throughout history couples in love have caused wars and controversy, created masterpieces in writing, music, and art, and have captured the hearts of the public with the power of their bonds. From the allure of Cleopatra to the magnetism of the Kennedy’s, these love affairs have stood as markers in history.
But have you ever wondered what does actually love cause to the human body and brain?
The experience of romantic love is headed by three major neuromodulators: dopamine, oxytocin, and vasopressin (Debiec, 2007). Dopamine is the primary pleasure neurotransmitter of the brain?s reward circuitry, which plays an important role in both sexual arousal and romantic feelings. While all mammals find sex rewarding, humans also register the individual mate as rewarding. When looking into the face of our loved one our reward circuit (VTA, striatum, nucleus accumbens) gets flooded with dopamine.
In particular, love can cause:
Euphoria is that excitement you feel when spending time with the person you love. This effect of falling in love can be traced to the neurotransmitter dopamine. Brain?s reward system relies on this important chemical to reinforce pleasurable behaviors, including eating, listening to music, having sex, seeing people you love. Brain ?rewards? people with more dopamine, which is experienced as intense pleasure.
- Trust and Devotion
As the brain moves from lust to love, the ventral pallidum activates. Our blood is flooded with the neurotransmitter oxytocin, which predicts attachment behavior, and has been shown to increase generosity and empathy. Women already have a lot of oxytocin, but studies show that men get a big surge in it after a kiss; it?s one of the biological forces that moves them away from pure lust toward care, trust, and devotion.
Attachment is the predominant factor in long-term relationships. While lust and attraction are pretty much exclusive to romantic entanglements, attachment mediates friendships, parent-infant bonding, social cordiality, and many other intimacies as well. The two primary hormones here appear to be oxytocin and vasopressin. Oxytocin is often nicknamed ?cuddle hormone? for this reason. Like dopamine, oxytocin is produced by the hypothalamus and released in large quantities during human intercourse, breastfeeding, and childbirth. This may seem like a very strange assortment of activities, but the common factor is that all of these are precursors to bonding.
Lust is driven by the desire for sexual gratification. The evolutionary basis for this stems from our need to reproduce, a need shared among all living things. Through reproduction, organisms pass on their genes and thus contribute to the perpetuation of their species. The hypothalamus of the brain plays a big role in this, stimulating the production of the sex hormones testosterone and estrogen from the testes and ovaries. While these chemicals are often stereotyped as being ?male? and ?female,? respectively, both play a role in men and women. As it turns out, testosterone increases libido in just everyone. (Dr. Helen Fisher, 2017)
There?s an old region near the brainstem called the amygdala. That?s the threat-detector?it starts firing when you see danger, risk, and uncertainty. When you?re in the intense throes of romantic love, the amygdala sleeps, as do parts of the frontal lobe, which involves judgment. The upshot is that the brain in love is prone to bad decisions?it has trouble detecting threats and connecting actions with long-term consequences.
- Willingness to sacrifice
Love involves some degree of compromise and sacrifice. As love flourishes, you may find yourself more willing to make these sacrifices. It?s believed this happens because partners tend to become more synced up, thanks in part to the vagus nerve, which begins in your brain and plays a role in everything from your facial expressions to the rhythm of your heart. This alignment can help you notice when they feel sad or distressed. Since it?s only natural to want to keep someone you love from experiencing pain, you might choose to sacrifice something for this reason.
- Less stress
Lasting love is consistently linked to lower levels of stress. The positive feelings associated with oxytocin and dopamine production can help improve your mood, for one. It is also said that single people may have higher levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, than people in committed relationships. When it comes to anxiety, a loving, stable relationship is superior to a new romance. Researchers at the State University of New York at Stony Brook used functional MRI (fMRI) scans to look at the brains of people in love. They compared passionate new couples with strongly connected long-term couples. Both groups showed activation in a part of the brain associated with intense love. ?It?s the dopamine-reward area, the same area that responds to cocaine or winning a lot of money,? says Arthur Aron, PhD, one of the study?s authors. But there were striking differences between the two groups in other parts of the brain. In long-term relationships, ?you also have activation in the areas associated with bonding … and less activation in the area that produces anxiety.? (Society for Neuroscience, 2008)
- Improved physical health
Love, particularly love that develops into a committed relationship, can have a positive impact on overall health. A few of these benefits include decreased risk of heart disease, lower blood pressure, improved immune health, faster recovery from illness. The Health and Human Services Department reviewed a bounty of studies on marriage and health. One of the report?s most striking findings is that married people have fewer doctor?s visits and shorter average hospital stays.
- Pain Relief
Love-induced pain relief was associated with the activation of primitive brain structures that control rewarding experiences, such as the nucleus accumbens. The reduction of pain is associated with higher, cortical parts of the brain. Love-induced analgesia is much more associated with the reward centers. It appears to involve more primitive aspects of the brain, activating deep structures that may block pain at a spinal level ? similar to how opioid analgesics work. (Standford Medicine, 2010)
While people tend to think of jealousy as something bad, it?s a natural emotion that can help you pay more attention to your needs and feelings. In other words, jealousy sparked by love can suggest you have a strong commitment to your partner. Jealousy can actually have a positive impact on your relationship by promoting bonding and attachment.
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