Over 1.5 bilion people use the internet every day, and they search for pretty much anything. And one of the most searched questions is: “What is love?”
It’s the kind of thing that keeps poets and philosophers up at night, but science actually has a pretty good explanation for it, too. And the answer might change depending on what kind of scientist you ask.
But possibly the best way to understand love is through chemistry. Brain chemistry. Although the heart is our symbol of love for some reason, when it comes down to it, love is all about the brain.
We know this because we can actually see love in action in brain scans. And you know what? It looks an awful like a brain on cocaine.
As a person first falls in love, at least a dozen different brain parts light up to release powerful chemicals – hormones and neurotransmitters – that trigger feelings of excitement, euphoria, bonding, and butterflies.
Research also shows that the kind of unconditional love between a mother and child activates slightly different regions of the brain.
Early romantic love and attraction, what you might call passion, is all about flooding the brain’s reward systems in a tsunami of feel-good chemicals like adrenaline, norepinephrine, and dopamine.
This is why a brain on intense new love looks a whole lot like a brain on coke – adrenaline and norepinephrine amp up your heart rate and get you all restless, while those dopamine drips leave you feeling euphoric.
These chemicals light up your brain’s pleasure centres, lowering your pleasure thresholds, and making it easier to feel good about… everything.
Interestingly, this kind of passionate new love is also marked by lowered serotonin levels, similar to those found in people with obsessive-compulsive disorders – which may help explain those 30 texts your infatuated new lover sent while you were in the shower.
Eventually, most of these more intense, obsessive components of new love settle down into a deeper, calmer form of love associated with attachment and bonding. Here your brain chemistry starts changing again, and hormones – like oxytocin and vasopressin – take over.
Their mission, like Al Green’s, is to get you stay together.
You may have heard of oxytocin, the so-called the “cuddle hormone.” It gets released during orgasms, and for women during childbirth, and it helps cement bonds between people.
And you can think of vasopressin as the monogamy hormone. And you know who’s taught us more about how it works than anything else? Prairie voles, one of the very few mammals that mate for life.
After mating, a male vole’s brian gets flooded with vasopressin, and essentially gets hooked on his mate forever. The two then have lots of sex, and all that tiny boot-knocking keeps the vasopressin flowing.
When researchers gave voles a compound that suppressed the effects of vasopressin, the pairs quickly fell apart, losing their devotion to each other.
So, while in the poetic sense, love may always be something of a mystery, from the scientific view, it is within the realm of comprehension.
That is it all, and don’t forget to show love to your loved ones! 😀