home Features Your love is my drug – The neuroscience of love

Your love is my drug – The neuroscience of love

That’s amoré; most of us have fallen head over heels in love at some point or another. That heady feeling, that rush of emotion and sensation when you think of them, it’s overwhelming.  At its height, it’s like an addiction. Your entire world revolves around this person, whether it’s a conscious decision or not.

But why? We’re rational beings, taught to critically evaluate new information. As students, many of us are millennials, a generation more cynical at an early age than our predecessors ever were.  So why do we turn pink and gooey at the sight of a certain someone?

Love is addictive, truly. When we think of the one we love, our brain releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter that is used in several pathways in the brain. It’s also strongly implicated in numerous theories of drug addiction. When in love, the ventral tegmental area, an area that is part of the reward circuitry in the brain, releases dopamine. This is relayed to the nucleus accumbens, the pleasure centre of the brain. Your brain doesn’t just love someone; they’re literally addicted to the idea of them.

You know how women remember everything in a relationship? That’s because in women, the hippocampus is more active. The hippocampus is one of the areas of the brain that grows throughout our lives, and it’s implicated in learning and memory, specifically translating short term memory to long term memory. Given that women have bigger hippocampi anyway, it’s not surprising!

They say that if you look someone in the eye for 4 minutes, you’ll fall in love. It sounds like an old wives tail, but it’s not that far off the mark. Newborns and lovers have that in common; eye contact is the fastest way to building a lasting connection. Eye contact and a smile is even more potent. In a study with 48 heterosexual couples of unacquainted students, those that looked into their partner’s eyes for 2 minutes had significantly warmer feelings towards their partner after the experiment, compared to looking at hands or counting blinks. Only voice comes close to eye contact when it comes to building attraction/affection, but it’s a distant second.  So when people say that they knew when they saw their partner’s eyes, it’s not total bollocks.

Some would say that humans aren’t supposed to form monogamous pair bonds. We used to call them chancers/cheaters/players, but for some they may have a point. A study in Sweden featuring 554 heterosexual couples found that a gene, RS3 334 is involved in the male’s ability to form a successful pair bond. The more copies of the gene a guy has, the worse their ability to form one. This gene has also been linked to trust, go figure! The gene RS3 334 a section of the coding for the hormone, vasopressin, which has long been implicated in promiscuity and monogamy (it’s also involved in retaining water and how often you pee).

As if all that wasn’t enough, love lowers the activity of the pathways in the brain used for some negative emotion, specifically social judgement and fear. One pathway for these emotions connects the nucleus accumbens (pleasure centre of the brain) and the amygdala. The amygdala is involved in decision making and emotional reactions, especially fear and panic (it’s enlarged in people who  suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, for example). It’s part of the limbic system, one of the oldest parts of the brain; and love slows it down. So when you see your friend hopelessly in love with an absolute moron, and you can’t talk them out of it, now you know why.

We’re at the mercy of our biochemistry, and our brains go all out when it comes to romantic love. For the Valentine’s day that’s in it, sit back, relax and enjoy that sweet rush of neurotransmitters.

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Mary Collins

Mary Collins is a student of Applied Psychology in UCC and is Features Editor for the UCC Express for 2016/17