Love Actually: Science Has a Lot to Say About the Complicated World of Love

There are a host of chemical and biological changes that occur while you are in love.
Donovan Alexander

What is love? Oh, baby, don't hurt me. Don't hurt me. No more. Sorry, I couldn't resist.

But, seriously, what is love? Philosophers, musicians, and artists have spent much of their lives trying to answer this question, with little to no success. Nietzsche once said this about love: "There is always some madness in love. But there is also always some reason in madness."

Yet, one of my favorite quotes about love comes from a seven-year-old named Glenn, "If falling in love is anything like learning how to spell, I don't want to do it. It takes too long." 

Today, we won't be giving a direct answer to the age-old question of what is love, but instead, we are going to take a look at what science has to say about the subject.

Almost everyone, at some point in their life, experiences some form of love, and so it is probably not surprising that  scientists have also gotten involved. "Love's warm squishiness seems a thing far removed from the cold, hard reality of science," says Alvin Powell at the Harvard Gazette. "Yet the two do meet, whether in lab tests for surging hormones or in austere chambers, where MRI scanners noisily thunk and peer into brains that ignite at glimpses of their soulmates." 


Various fields, ranging from anthropology to neuroscience, each have different explanations for the meaning, purpose, and biological basis of love. Today, we are going to explore some of these insights in an attempt to learn more about how love affects the body and the mind. In many cases, the answers these experts found are both simpler and more complex than they had imagined. 

Love affects you in just about every way imaginable. 

Love Actually: Science Has a Lot to Say About the Complicated World of Love
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When talking about the idea of love, most people automatically picture the heart, or at least an idealized heart shape. In more ways than one, the heart is the official, unofficial symbol of love. However, love actually has much more to do with the brain than the heart. Yet, there may be a reason why people associate love with the heart. Take a moment and think about the last time you had a "crush," or found yourself attracted to someone. Maybe you are still attracted to them now. Do your hands get sweaty? Do you get nervous? Perhaps a bit jittery?

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Love Actually: Science Has a Lot to Say About the Complicated World of Love
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Perhaps it feels like your heart is pounding out off your chest. These reactions are all associated with being in love, and most are felt, to varying degrees, in the chest.

However, in reality, it is your brain that is responsible for this feeling in your chest. It is sending biochemical signals throughout your body which result in various effects like a rapid heartbeat. And these biochemical changes are actually measurable. In fact, researchers have identified the exact chemicals that cause them.

Love Chemistry: There are measurable biochemical changes in your brain when you fall in love

Love Actually: Science Has a Lot to Say About the Complicated World of Love
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These biochemical changes can be very potent, and can affect your body in many ways. However, it gets a bit deeper than that. Being attracted to someone, feeling lust, and wanting to stick by someone's side are all different aspects of love,  and they all have different physiological basis.

Expert on the biology of love, Dr. Helen Fisher at Rutgers University believes that love can be broken down into three categories: lust, attraction, and attachment. However, this is where biochemistry comes into play. Each category is affected by its own set of hormones. Think of them as recipies for love.  

The biochemistry of lust

In both men and women, the feeling we call lust is dictated by the hormones estrogen and testosterone. Lust may sound tawdry, but it serves a very important evolutionary function. It is derived from the need to reproduce and starts in the hypothalamus of the brain, which stimulates the production of the sex hormones testosterone and estrogen, which increase libido.

Now add in a good amount of attraction 

Love Actually: Science Has a Lot to Say About the Complicated World of Love
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The chemical basis of attraction shares some similarities with lust, but is essentially different in nature. After all, you might find someone attractive, but do not necessarily lust after them. Conversely, it is possible to lust after someone, but not feel a lasting attraction.

Attraction centers around the brain's reward pathways. This is why the honeymoon phase of a relationship can feel so exciting and thrilling. The chemicals most responsible for this feeling are dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. Let's start with dopamine. 

Produced in the hypothalamus, dopamine is released when we do things that feel good, from having sex to spending time with loves ones. High levels of dopamine and another hormone, norepinephrine, are released during attraction.

These hormones result in feelings or giddiness and euphoria, can make us feel energetic, and give us the insomnia and decreased appetite all of which are also often associated with being "in love".  In fact, norepinephrine, is also known as noradrenalin, and it plays a role in the "fight or flight response" - this is what kicks in to keep us alert when we are stressed. 

Have you ever been so "in love" with someone that you can't sleep? You can blame your hormones for messing with you. However, attraction also leads to a reduction in the hormone serotonin, which is also involved in regulating appetite and mood. Some researchers suggest that low levels of serotonin, is what leads to the feelings of the overpowering infatuation that we often feel at beginning stages of love.

Why are you obsessing over them?  

Love Actually: Science Has a Lot to Say About the Complicated World of Love
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Attachment is more common in long-term relationships, after the initial "giddy" stages.The feeling of attachment can be found in everything, from friendships to parent-infant bonding. It is the glue that builds long term relationships. The hormones most associated with feelings of attachment are thought to be oxytocin and vasopressin. 

Oxytocin is released during a host of intimate activities like sex, breastfeeding, and childbirth. While this may seem like an odd combination of activities, they all have one thing in common - they are precursors to attachment.

The process of falling in love can be speeded up 

Have you ever fallen in love at first sight, or perhaps just very quickly? Science may have an explanation for that. Some activities or situations can lead to a release of the hormones discussed above. Researchers have experimented with having strangers have a deep conversation for 30 minutes while making eye contact. Surprisingly, this can create a feeling of deep and lasting attachment. However, studies have also pointed out that this feeling can happen even faster, which leads us to our next entry. 

Love at first sight could actually be a thing.

Love Actually: Science Has a Lot to Say About the Complicated World of Love
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In a study conducted by a team from Syracuse University, researchers found that falling in love can elicit not only the same euphoric feeling as using cocaine, but also affects overlapping areas of the brain associated with the cocaine use. However, within this same study, researchers also found that falling in love can take as little as a fifth of a second, and confirmed that different parts of the brain are responsible for different types of love. "Unconditional love, such as that between a mother and a child, is sparked by the common and different brain areas, including the middle of the brain. Passionate love is sparked by the reward part of the brain, and also associative cognitive brain areas that have higher-order cognitive functions, such as body image," according to the Syracuse team. 

Love can do some interesting things in your body. 

Love Actually: Science Has a Lot to Say About the Complicated World of Love
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The hormones released when we fall in love, lust, or attachment can have other effects on the body. There might even be some physiological benefits of in falling love. A 2007 study found that married people who are in love tended to have lower blood pressure and a reduced risk for cardiovascular disease.

Another study, this time of 3.5 million adults, produced similar results. A study published in the journal Nature highlighted that the feeling of attachment can also produce feelings of safety and reduce anxiety. And a report at the Harvard Medical School highlighted how physical contact, like hugging, kissing, and sex, deepens feelings of attachment towards your partner and produces sensations of contentment, calmness, and security. Being in love cannot be that bad. 

But, love can make you a bit crazy. 

However, there is also a  flip side. Those in love have been known to demonstrate jealousy, erratic behavior, and irrationality. This occurs because the same hormones that are released when we fall in love, to make us feel good,  rewarded, and close to our partners, are some of the same hormones that create super alertness when we are stressed, and in high levels can lead to anxiety. These hormones also affect the brain in a similar way to drugs like cocaine. And just like some drugs, being "jilted" or not seeing our love for long periods, can cause withdrawal symptoms. 

Have you ever been in love? Are you in love right now? For more articles like this, be sure to stop by here. 

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