The science of love – why we go gooey on Valentine’s Day
What actually happens to us when our gentler emotions are roused? Our psychology expert Mary Ann Watson explains.
1. Lust (not love) at first sight is real.
That mystical moment when your eyes meet across a crowded room and you just know this is the one? Well, part of the reason you “know” is because tiny doses of neurochemicals such as dopamine and norepinephrine are firing in your brain. Which doesn’t sound very romantic. And the fact is that the most exciting and lustful relationships (the kind of stuff Hollywood movies are built upon) mostly don’t last. Research shows that women, for example, tend to go for square-jawed, bearded alpha males for one-night stands. But they will seek out a softer, kinder face when looking for the potential father of their children. Lust strikes. Love builds slowly.
2. Cuddling works.
During a lovely cuddle or moment of intimacy, the brain releases increased levels of a hormone called oxytocin. The “cuddle hormone” (as it is known) can also alleviate headaches, so put away those Aleve tablets and hug. Incidentally, oxytocin is also released when mothers nurse their babies – it really is all about feeling safe, secure and warm. That’s why so many couples love to “spoon” in bed.
3. Love can, literally, be addictive.
When you’re high on the beautiful thrill of being in love, that’s because your brain is bursting with dopamine. Your body’s so-called “pleasure chemical” is also the one that’s activated by artificial stimulants such as cocaine and methamphetamines, which is why people sometimes feel “addicted” to their lover. (It looks like Robert Palmer was right all along.) Dopamine also actively suppresses the rational part of your brain – so now you know why people in love do such dumb things.
4. Falling in love is anxiety-based.
There’s a reason they call it “falling” in love. Your serotonin levels can drop to the same level as someone affected by obsessive-compulsive disorder. Your increased dopamine levels might resemble those of people with schizophrenia. Ultimately, falling for someone is an anxiety-based sensation. What’s happening here? Where are we going next? Can I count on this person? That’s one reason sex is more frequent in the early stages – it is built upon on an uncertainty about how long things will last. (Note for new lovebirds: It generally takes 4-6 months for a relationship to transition to a calmer, less dramatic level.) One thing is certain: Those fraught early days are the worst possible time to decide to move in with someone.
5. Getting dumped hurts.
No, really. Here’s a neurological fact: Your brain doesn’t really distinguish between physical and emotional pain. (Scientific studies have shown the same pain centers lighting up in subjects both when they’re physically hurt or shown a picture of an ex who dumped them.) Even if nobody is actually jumping on your leg, your brain is shouting that you’re in pain. And that, er, hurts.
Mary Ann Watson is an emeritus professor in the Department of Psychology at MSU Denver, specializing in human behavior and sexuality. She met her husband of 39 years while teaching a course called “How to be Single and Happy at the Same Time.”