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The Science of Love


By Ashna Sethi 

March 2017

Love is an omnipresent, yet mysterious emotion that cannot be understood. When someone falls in love, very often they cannot recollect how it happened or understand why it is happening. This seemingly simple word masks a complex chemical mechanism characterised by neurotransmitters and intense brain activity.

A very well known article in Psychopharmacology (2012) concluded that individuals become ‘addicted’ to each other because of the concept or the opportunity of a returned reward. Our bodies are guided by a chain reaction of chemicals to create a feeling of love that we eventually cannot fight. Another study by New York Psychologist Arthur Arun claims that a person takes between 90 seconds to 4 minutes on an average to determine whether he or she is in love or not. All of the research on this matter has cumulated into one popular theory analysing the science behind love consisting of three stages characterised by lust, attraction and attachment.

Lust is a physical attraction between a man and woman that is influenced or characterised by the sex hormones; oestrogen for women and testosterone for men. The increase in the level of any of these hormones cultivates a feeling of lust causing the brain to initiate certain limbic processes. It is this physical attraction that naturally promotes mating and paves the way for a deeper, psychological attraction.

Mental or psychological attraction is the experience of getting to know a partner and appreciating his or her personality. Drastic changes in an individual’s personality causes him/her to think about that one specific person. The varying levels and secretions of adrenaline, dopamine, and serotonin characterise mental/physical attraction.

When studies looked specifically at adrenaline and its role, the symptoms of premature attraction included stress response, an increase in adrenaline and cortisol and finally attitude reaction. Any person falling in love would experience one of the symptoms that would lead to a positive change. For example, the feeling of butterflies in the stomach, a dry mouth whenever his/her partner is around , etc.

The role of dopamine during the stage of attraction was explored and proved through an experiment. The experiment found that the fMRIs of the brains of a couple in love revealed the presence of unprecedentedly high levels of dopamine. This result points to a “high” in the mind and body as dopamine is known to naturally stimulate a feeling of pleasure within the body.

Lastly, serotonin has effects that can disarm the brain. It stimulates and diverts the mind to force a person to unknowingly think about their partner and no one else. These levels are different for men and women, in fact, they have been reported to be just the opposite. Women have higher levels of serotonin when in love than men.

After passing through the stage of lust and then mental attraction, the body only has to develop a sense of attachment before the process of falling in love is complete. Attachment is catalysed by two extremely important hormones-Oxytocin and Vasopressin.

Commonly known as the ‘cuddle hormone,’ Oxytocin creates a strong bond and sense of attachment between two partners. Released equally by both males and females, it boosts social interactions by heightening the ability to pick up on cues from one’s partner.

Vasopressin is an anti-diuretic hormone. While its main function is to control thirst, it is an important hormone as it plays a role in influencing partner preference. Both females and males receive vasopressin secretions from the pituitary gland. A study in Biological Psychology (2012) tested 37 couples by measuring neurotransmitter blood levels and concluded that for any long-lasting relationship, Vasopressin is a major promoter. It is believed that the indirect result of this secretion causes better interpersonal functioning, less negative communication, more security and more support from a partner.

The world of science has only glimpsed into the complexities of an emotion like love. While there is so much that is already known, there is still so much to discover. The exact bodily reactions that are related to love are still a mystery to man. What can be said with confidence however is that, falling in love is not as simple as we believe it to be, in fact, it is a complex chain of chemical actions and reactions happening in our brains.

Rohil Bahl