So I wrote a paper for my Physiological Psychology class on the physiological changes that occur in your brain when you fall in love. A lot of people found this paper very interesting and helpful, and a couple people advised me to get it published for the good of all mankind, but that’s a lot of work. So I’ll just post it on here for you all instead ^.^
The Physiology of Love:
A Physiological Approach to Gaining a Better Understanding the Complex Phenomena of Love
Love is a complicated phenomenon that few people fully understand. This paper examined several studies in order to gain a clearer understanding of what exactly love is. Through a large assortment of experiments on both humans and animals, including MRIs, PETs, manipulation of brain chemical concentrations, surveys, and analysis of public records, several discoveries were made. Through analyzing these studies, it can be concluded that A) when someone falls in love, many changes occur in their brain, B) these changes share many characteristics with phenomena we already have a greater understanding of, such as drug addiction and obsessive-compulsive disorder, and C) these changes serve a powerful purpose for reproduction and continuation of the species. Further research should focus on the similarities between addiction and love, withdrawal and heartbreak, and how these similarities could be exploited for the purpose of finding better methods of treatment.
The Physiology of Love
It is as Mahatma Ghandi said, “Where there is love, there is life.” Most people will fall in love at some point in their life, and many would consider love to be a critical part of the human experience. Wrote Erich Fromm (1955), “The necessity to unite with other living beings, to be related to them, is an imperative need on the fulfillment of which man’s sanity depends.“ However, most of humanity has very little understanding of what exactly love is. The internet is overflowing with romantic quotes citing the “true” definition of love, and this excess of information only serves to further complicate and obscure an understanding of what it really means to fall in love with someone. Perhaps the best way to clear the air and develop a concrete understanding of love and its impact on the human experience is to study love from a purely physical, measurable, and scientific perspective. To truly understand love, we must study the physical and biological changes that create the sensation that we call “love”.
Many poets and songwriters have referred to love as an addiction or obsession. In reality, they weren’t too far off from the truth. Love and addiction have many similarities from chemical changes in the brain to changes in outward behavior. Says Burkett (2012), “The psychology of human love and drug addiction share powerful overlaps at virtually every level of the addictive process, from initial encounters to withdrawal. A preponderance of evidence from human studies and animal models now demonstrates that these overlaps extend to the level of neurobiology as well, where virtually every neurochemical system implicated in addiction also participates in social attachment processes.” And on an outward level, a person who has fallen in love will exhibit many addictive behaviors, such as ignoring possible consequences and going to great lengths to get another fix of their drug (or person) of choice. On a more detailed internal level, data has suggested that changes in Dopamine receptors that occur during drug addiction are very similar to changes that occur when a person or animal is forming a bond with a mate and developing an aggressive intolerance for anyone who is not their mate (Burkett, 2012). In fact, love and addiction are so similar, in their effects on the brain, that it has been proposed that breakups and heartbreaks should be given the same treatments as drug withdrawal symptoms (Burkett, 2012). And said Zeki (2007), “Studies have shown a depletion of serotonin in early stages of romantic love to levels that are common in patients with obsessive-compulsive disorders. Love, after all, is a kind of obsession and in its early stages commonly immobilizes thought and channels it in the direction of a single individual.”
Another adjective that is often used to describe love is “madness”. This is another surprisingly accurate description. Research has shown that when a person falls in love, certain parts of the brain involved in judgment and decision making become de-activated. There is also a deactivation of parts of the frontal cortex involved in assessing and criticizing other people. “[This inactivation] should not…be surprising because, when deeply in love, we suspend those critical judgments that we otherwise use to assess people” (Zeki, 2007). As it turns out, this temporary insanity actually serves an important biological function. Just like mutt dogs, on average, have fewer health problems than purebreds, the human species is stronger if its genetic makeup is varied. If humans were in complete control of their judgment when choosing a mate, they would pick someone who was very similar to themselves. They would choose someone who comes from the same culture, has the same values and religious beliefs, and other such details that would allow for a peaceful merging of families. However, this would result in a very simple genetic makeup, which would leave mankind vulnerable to defect and disease. Instead, when a woman catches sight of a man who is very different from herself, her logical conscious mind might say that he is a bad match for her since they have nothing in common, but her internal chemical makeup will take over and override logic and cause her to break all cultural and personal expectations to pursue this strange man because his genetic makeup will mix with her own to make a far stronger child, leading to a far stronger future generation.
Obsession and insanity are both changes that occur in the human brain to cause us to find a mate and create strong offspring, but what causes us to stay with that mate and continue to feel love even after we have already given birth to a healthy child? De Boer offers an explanation in his article Love is More Than Just a Kiss: “It has been suggested that romantic love developed from courtship neuronal mechanisms and thus can be seen as a human form of the courtship behavior. Both courtship attraction and romantic love are systems for mate choice, evolutionary mechanisms developed to choose a partner that offers the best chances to the offspring. Romantic love is also part of the adult attachment system, and it seems to be essential in the early stages of attachment. The adult attachment system evolved as a system to keep parents together for the time necessary to raise the offspring” (2012). Dopamine is another chemical in the brain related to drug addiction, but through experimentation with voles, it has is also been associated with monogamous dedication to a single mate and selective aggression towards anyone who is not their mate.
In conclusion, love is a very complicated part of the human experience, but it can be better understood through the physiological and chemical effects it has on the human brain. These effects show strong similarities between love and other phenomena which humans already have a much stronger understanding of, such as drug addiction and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Perhaps further efforts to understand the phenomena of love could be assisted and sped up by coordination with studies already done in these other areas.
Burkett, J. (2012). The behavioral, anatomical and pharmacological parallels between
social attachment, love and addiction. Psychopharmacology, 224(1), 1-26.
de Boer, A. A., van Buel, E. M., & Ter Horst, G. J. (2012). Cognitive, Behavioral, and
Systems Neuroscience: Love is more than just a kiss: a neurobiological
perspective on love and affection. Neuroscience, 201, 114-124.
Fromm, E. (1955). The sane society. New York: Rinehart.
Zeki, S. S. (2007). The neurobiology of love. FEBS Letters, 5812575-2579.