We all know love is a powerful force. It has been the inspiration for countless songs, artistic masterpieces, and incredible displays of selflessness. It is all-too-often the cause of extraordinary sadness, trauma, and even death (both suicide and those who die of broken hearts).
Love can estrange friends, make people happier than they’ve ever been, provide a reason to live, and even start wars. But while we know much about the emotional and societal effects of love, science still knows very little about its biological impacts. Most of what we do know, however, is related to the brain––and not, as you might have hoped, to the heart. These are the neurological effects of love:
Lust and Attraction
In most cases, the first spark of love is physical attraction. During the early stages of a relationship (sometimes called the attraction phase), dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine are released by the brain in large quantities into our bodies.
Dopamine and serotonin––as you might know––are both pleasure hormones, responsible for feelings of euphoria. These are the same hormones released by the drug ecstasy; and serotonin has been found in high quantities in patients suffering from an obsessive-compulsive disorder––an interesting connection that might shed light on the obsessive behaviors sometimes evoked by love.
A protein molecule called Nerve Growth Factor is also found in high concentrations in couples in the early stages of love but seems to decrease over time, and typically returns to normal levels after about a year.
Oxytocin and vasopressin are two hormones believed to be responsible for long-term bonding and strong, enduring attachments. Both have been found in high levels in couples who have been together for many years, and are believed to be released at steady intervals throughout long-term relationships.
Your Brain on Love
Modern brain scans indicate that the Media Insula region of the brain and the Anterior Cingulate Cortex are activated by feelings of love. The first is responsible for instinct, the latter for feelings of euphoria.
Love and the Limbic System
Another interesting theory of love is based upon the demonstrable connection between nervous systems in those who are closely bonded. Our nervous systems are not self-contained, some believe but are attuned to those we love. Thus, empathy responses evoke love by making us feel pleasure when we sense pleasure in our loved ones.
Despite all the insights we might find through neuroscience, it is doubtful any scientific explanation will ever come close to providing an adequate explanation for love. But just as lovelorn musicians and artists have long persisted in trying to express their own understanding of this powerful force, it is certain that science will continue to explore the subject for years to come––always finding new ways to describe it, but never quite capturing it.