What Love Does to Your Brain

June 24, 2009 by  
Filed under Feeling Positive

couplesmashHow Love Lights You Up
When you’re in love your eyes light up, your face lights up and so do four tiny portions of your brain.

Neurobiologists Andreas Bartels and Semir Zeki of University College in London used MRI brain scans to peer into the brains of college students in the throes of that crazed, can’t-think-of-anything-else stage of early romantic love.

When the subjects were shown photographs of their sweet hearts, the MRI images showed that four parts of their brains lit up.

The researchers compared the MRI images to brain scans taken from people in different emotional states, including se.xual arousal, feelings of happiness and coc.aine-induced euphoria.

But the pattern for romantic love was unique. Interestingly, looking at a picture of their loved one also reduced activity in three portions of the brain active when one is upset or depressed.

Is Love Addictive?
When you fall in love your skin flushes, you breathe heavy, and your palms tend to sweat.

Why? Because your brain is experiencing a biochemical rush of dopamine, norepinephrine and phenylethylamine close chemical cousins to amphetamines.

But it’s easy to build up a tolerance to these stimulating bio-chemicals. Then, as with any other tolerance, it takes more of the substance to get that special feeling of infatuation.

Some neuroscientists theorize that folks who jump from one relationship to another are hooked on the intoxication of falling in love.

But interestingly, in the case of enduring romance, simply the presence of one’s partner stimulates the production of endorphins. Endorphins are the feel good biochemicals also behind the experience of runner’s high, and are natural pain-killers.

The Biology of Romance
Recent research suggests that romantic attraction is actually a primitive, biologically based drive just like hunger or thirst.

The biology of romance helps account for why we might travel cross-country for a single ki.ss, and plunge into hopeless despair if our beloved turns from us. It’s the drive for romance that enables us to focus on one particular person, although we often can’t explain why.

What we’re seeing here is the biological drive to choose a mate, to focus on one person to the exclusion of all others, claims Helen Fisher, an anthropologist at Rutgers University.

Research has proven that romantic attraction activates portions of the brain with high concentrations of receptors for dopamine, Fisher explains. And dopamine is the chemical messenger also tied to states of euphoria, craving and addiction.

Other scientific studies have linked high levels of dopamine and a related agent, norepinephrine to heightened attention and short-term memory, hyperactivity, sleeplessness and goal-oriented behavior.

Sound like love?

When they first fall in love, Fisher explains, couples often show the signs of surging dopamine: Increased energy, less need for sleep or food, and highly focused attention.

The Psychology of Love
Poets and song writers have long claimed that the power of the biochemical state we call romantic love is enough to blind one’s judgment.

We all know how new lovers tend to idealize their partner magnifying their virtues, and explaining away their flaws.

But though love may be blind, take hope.

Pamela Regan, a Cal State LA researcher, believes such idealization may be crucial to a long-term relationship. If you don’t sweep away the person’s flaws to some extent, you’re just as likely to end a relationship, she claims.

This at least gives you a chance, Regan feels. If you think of romantic attraction as a kind of drug that alters how you think, then in this case it’s allowing you to take some risks you wouldn’t otherwise take.

Not a bad thing.

But if passionate romance is like a drug, as the MRI images suggest, then it’s bound to lose its kick. But perhaps viewing romance as a biologically based, drug-like state can at least provide some balm for a broken heart.

Healthy Romanticizing
In a 1996 experiment, psychologists at the State University of New York at Buffalo followed a group of 121 dating couples. Every few months the couples answered questionnaires to find out how much they idealized their partner, and how well their relationship was doing.

The researchers discovered that the couples who idealized each other the most were closest one year later.

The Issue of Self-Love
How does the love of one’s self  also known as a positive self concept or good self-esteem fit into this picture?

Recent research indicates that depressed people who feel ‘unloved’ are 50% more likely to get cancer.

Negativity, fear, anger and depression are not just in your head. They are biochemical states. Remember neuroscience has proven beyond a doubt that we can consciously create the biochemical states known as joy, happiness, motivation, and even ecstasy.