What Love Does to the Human Brain
Christina Sarich, Staff Writer
What Love Does to Us
Falling in love results in the very same neural response that ignites the brain when people do heavy narcotics. It is impeccably addictive and this is why ‘falling out of love’ feels so bad, but, love in its highest form is more than a chemical romance. That being said, Mother Nature built in some hard-wired connections to reward us for falling in love.
Romantic Love is a Drug
In a research study that involved looking at brain scans of people in love, the very same centers ‘lit up’ that are responsible for craving and reward. When brain scans were taken of people who said they were still in love after 20 years of marriage, the brain centers were slightly different, but still marked by a similar pattern. Ted Huston, a researcher who is more interested in long-term relationships, found that people who are ‘blinded by love’, that is, they look with a positive slant upon their lover’s qualities, often have happier and more lasting marriages. It seems the brain may in fact be more responsible for romantic love, at least in studies like these, than the heart.
According to Helen Fisher of Rutgers University, who has spent her life researching the effects of love on the brain, two surprising areas of the brain light up when we are focusing on the object of our affection. The first is part of our primitive, reptilian brains, the caudate nucleus. She also noticed that areas of the brain associated with creating dopamine and norepinephrine are very active when we love someone. These particular brain chemicals are associated with pleasure and excitement.
Fisher has said, “No wonder lovers talk all night or walk till dawn, write extravagant poetry and self-revealing e-mails, cross continents or oceans to hug for just a weekend, change jobs or lifestyles, even die for one another. Drenched in chemicals that bestow focus, stamina and vigor, and driven by the motivating engine of the brain, lovers succumb to a Herculean courting urge.”
The Three Stages of Love
Fisher also found that love has three stages:
- Lust – It take less than 90 seconds to determine if we like someone, and less than 30% of it has anything to do with what they say to us. The attraction to another person is based on pheromones and body language, primarily. In the lust stage, sex hormones like testosterone and estrogen take the main stage.
- Attraction – At this stage, adrenaline, dopamine and serotonin start to make us feel love-struck. We can’t think of anyone but the person we are attracted to, and our response is very similar to a good-old-fashioned stress response. Our palms get sweaty, our hearts beat faster and we might suffer from dry mouth. Adrenaline and cortisol start to flood the blood stream. Dopamine makes us feel intense pleasure. This is partly why falling in love feels so good, but makes us a ball of nerves.
- In the final stage of love – bonding and attachment, the chemicals of the brain change to be primarily oxytocin, sometimes called the cuddle hormone, which is also the same hormone that allows mothers to bond with their babies when they are breast feeding. When we orgasm, oxytocin floods the body to make us feel more bonded with our partner. Oxytocin is so important that if you block its release, a mother will turn away from her own young.
In Huston’s research of longer-term relationships, he found that a newlywed couples’ courtship has a lot to say about the long-term success of a marriage. If the intensity of romantic feelings are high from the start and the courtship is marked by significant positive feelings, it often bodes well for the relationship after the ‘honeymoon phase’ starts to fade. In essence, good courtships lead to happy marriages and turbulent ones inevitably lead to future problems. It is possible that the hormonal cocktail, the love ‘drugs,’ that we take via our own brain chemistry when we are falling for someone just might be what gets us through challenging times that normally contribute to fading feelings.
Cosmic Love Evolves from the Reptilian Brain
While the caudate nucleus, or reptilian brain may be where romantic love starts a flame, the reptilian brain is also considered by many to be the physical house of the ego. The Yaqui Indian Shaman Don Juan has said this in regard to this particular brain center; “We have a predator that came from the depths of the cosmos and took over the rule of our lives. Human beings are its prisoners. The Predator is our lord and master. It has rendered us docile, helpless. If we want to protest, it suppresses our protest. If we want to act independently, it demands that we don’t do so… I have been beating around the bush all this time, insinuating to you that something is holding us prisoner. Indeed we are held prisoner!” Is it any wonder that romantic love makes us feel like we are ‘owned’ by another.
Still other recent research states that love is not simply emotion. It is complex and involves 12 different areas of the brain, like the dorsolateral middle frontal gyrus and the anterior cingulated, that most cooperate to create that magic moment – but get this – love happens in less than one fifth of a second.
Cosmic love usually illicits an entirely different feeling since it originates in different brain centers (as attested to by brain scans of long-term meditators who have had feelings of cosmic oneness and universal love for all things). In one study that utilized proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy and diffuser tensor imaging, meditation in a long-time Zen monk (who practiced mindfulness meditation) was shown to increase activity in certain areas of the brain and reduce it in others. Namely:
Myo-inositol (mI) was increased in the posterior cingulate gyrus and Glutamate (Glu), N-acetyl-aspartate (NAA) and N-acetyl-aspartate/Creatine (NAA/Cr) was reduced in the left thalamus in meditators. We found a significant positive correlation between mI in the posterior cingulate and years of meditation (r = 0.518; = .019). We also found significant negative correlations between Glu (r = −0.452; = .045), NAA (r = −0.617; = .003) and NAA/Cr (r = −0.448; P = .047) in the left thalamus and years of meditation. Meditators showed a lower Apparent Diffusion Coefficient (ADC) in the left posterior parietal white matter than did controls, and the ADC was negatively correlated with years of meditation (r = −0.4850, = .0066). (http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0058476)
This study at least shows that our brains are just as interesting when we feel universal love and oneness – with evidence of subtle abnormalities in neuronal function in regions of the white matter in meditators.
Neuroimaging of romantic love looks different than the pictures of the meditating brain.
The R-complex, or reptilian brain originates form a mammal-like reptile that is one of our evolutionary ancestors. Every single living mammal houses this reptilian part of the brain in their skulls. Skip Largent states, “At least five human behaviors originate in the reptilian brain. . .Without defining them, I shall simply say that in human activities they find expression in: obsessive-compulsive behavior; personal day‑to‑day rituals and superstitious acts; slavish conformance to old ways of doing things; ceremonial re‑enactments; obeisance to precedent, as‑in legal, religious, cultural, and other matters. . .and all manner of deceptions.” This leads to an understanding of eros – romantic love vs. ethos – cosmic love.
Ethos vs. Eros
Love of the divine that spills onto everything in creation is ethos. It does not rely upon someone’s sexy smile or the ‘lustful’ feelings we may have for someone – eros, but it can lead to ethos, as it gets us in touch with higher states of joy and lightness, and if only through a partner, love of someone besides ourselves. When we share love with all humans, or even all sentient creatures – whether they are our spouses, or a total stranger across the world in another city, or a tree growing in the park, that is ethos.
It seems that cosmic love doesn’t require heroine-like hormonal changes in the brain to sustain it. Instead of staying stuck in the reptilian brain, though it involves other brain centers, cosmic love spreads through all our brain centers, including the pre-frontal cortex, and calms areas that are normally concerned with obsessive-compulsive thinking and associated behaviors. The truth about love is – we can feel bliss while we are intimately intertwined in our lover’s arms post coitus, or we can feel bliss just walking down the street embracing the world as a whole.
Some Kiss We Want
There is some kiss we want with
our whole lives, the touch of
spirit on the body.
There is some kiss we want with
begs the pearl to break its shell.
And the lily, how passionately
it needs some wild darling!
At night, I open the window and ask
the moon to come and press its
face against mine.
Breathe into me.
Close the language-door and
open the love window.
won’t use the door, only the window.
–Rumi. Translator: Coleman Barks
About the Author
Christina Sarich is a musician, yogi, humanitarian and freelance writer who channels many hours of studying Lao Tzu, Paramahansa Yogananda, Rob Brezny, Miles Davis, and Tom Robbins into interesting tidbits to help you Wake up Your Sleepy Little Head, and See the Big Picture. Her blog is Yoga for the New World. Her latest book is Pharma Sutra: Healing the Body And Mind Through the Art of Yoga.
This article is offered under Creative Commons license. It’s okay to republish it anywhere as long as attribution bio is included and all links remain intact.
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