This post is also available in Dutch.
Love, for centuries, has been the center of attention in arts: literature, music, and painting. More recently, the neurobiology of love and emotions attracted scientists who started studying it to unravel the secrets of this strong feeling. So, what is love and what have scientists found about it?
Neuromodulators involved in love
One of the most important ingredients in a romantic relationship is chemistry. This is both metaphorically and literally true. According to the triangular theory of love, a relationship evolves over time from passion to commitment. While it changes, the biochemistry of our brains changes and evolves with it. For example, along with the euphoric feelings, early romantic love is characterized by higher cortisol levels due to increased stress and insecurities about the beginning of the relationship. Also, levels of testosterone and nerve growth factor(NGF, an important protein crucial for the development of the nervous system) change both in females and males during the relationship, indicating that they play a role in the intense early stages of romantic love, but not in long term relationships. It’s impossible to talk about the neurochemistry of love without citing oxytocin and vasopressin. Both hormones are produced by the hypothalamus and they’re important for pair-bonding. Their roles have been studied especially in prairie voles. They are rodents that, after mating, form monogamous pairs for a lifetime. When oxytocin and vasopressin release is blocked in these rodents, they became promiscuous and partner preference is no longer shown.
Brain areas activated
Love is not only about chemistry, but also about reward seeking and goal directed behaviors. In 2005, scientists used functional magnetic resonance on men and women who were “intensely in love” with their partners. They showed to these people pictures of their significant other and registered the activity of different brain areas. Their data suggest that romantic love uses subcortical reward and motivation systems like the ventral tegmental area (VTA), a brain area where addictive drugs act. In 2007, S.Zeki explains that, while parts of our brains get activated during romantic love (like the VTA), the activity of others, like frontal cortex, is reduced. The frontal cortex is responsible for higher cognitive functions such as the capacity to plan and organize to achieve a goal. So, the suspension of judgement can mirror the engaging of romantic love and can bring us to do crazy things!
Love is an important part of human experience and one of the keys to our survival. This feeling not only makes us feel good thanks to the release of many neurochemicals, but it also has an evolutionary purpose: when the ultimate goal is successful reproduction, the feeling of romantic love that we experience is a tool to help us reach that purpose.
Picture credits: Shaira Dela Peña from Unsplash
Author: Francesca Abela
Buddy: Julija Vaitonyte
Editor: Marisha Manahova
Translator: Ellen Lommerse
Editor translation: Floortje Bouwkamp