Humans and Health

What Is Love, Scientifically Speaking?

Two people holding hands with a heart-shaped balloon between them
Megan Cuerden

Love: an intense feeling of deep affection. We’ve all felt it; requited, unrequited, the first time you saw Harry Styles on X-Factor and never looked back.

Love, like all emotions, can be stripped back right to the root cause: chemicals. Scientists generally split love into three emotions: lust, attraction and attachment. All three have different chemicals responsible, and altogether, hit the feeling of love pretty spot on.

Lust is associated with sexual gratification and comes from our physical need to reproduce. The hypothalamus, in the brain, initiates the production of testosterone and oestrogen from our sexual organs. Testosterone increases libido universally, whilst oestrogen is thought to have a similar, if less intense, effect just in women.

Hormones lead us to feel energised, hyper and excitable

Attraction is involved in the reward pathway of the brain. Dopamine plays a big role in the reward pathway; its release occurs when we do things that feel good. In terms of attraction, this can simply be hanging out with friends all the way to ‘Netflix and chill’. During these instances of attraction dopamine and norepinephrine are released, and together these two hormones lead us to feel energised, hyper and excitable. Attraction also leads to a reduction in serotonin, which explains the classic scene of someone being so in love they can’t eat, sleep or focus on anything other than their one true love.

Attachment is the final factor, which turns lust and attraction into something much more long-term. Attachment doesn’t just revolve around romantic relationships but can entail friendships and family relationships too. Associated with attachment are oxytocin and vasopressin. Oxytocin is produced by the hypothalamus and shows an increased release during sex, breastfeeding and labour. This is because the release of oxytocin is an important pathway in any bonding experience. Increased vasopressin enables selective emotional bonding, key to any long-term relationship.

Whilst all these hormones are associated with the positive, happy emotions of love they do also have another side to them. Ever heard of the phrase ‘too much of a good thing’? That can certainly be the case with dopamine and oxytocin. Dopamine’s role in the reward pathway means it’s also associated with addiction. In terms of love, this can be portrayed as obsessive behaviours and jealousy. Combining this with the lower levels of serotonin means you don’t stand a chance of thinking about anything (or anyone) else.

Love is making us all look a little stupid

Oxytocin is associated with feeling sociable and outgoing, but too much can cause you to make more rash decisions and act recklessly. On top of all this, sexual arousal seems to stop certain regions in the prefrontal cortex of the brain from working efficiently, including areas responsible for rational and critical thinking.

What does this mean? Well, in short, love is making us all look a little stupid. Whilst declaring your love in the cheesiest way possible may seem like a good idea at the time, it’s a plan you’re almost certainly going to regret later.

And there it is, the chemical explanation of love. Whilst it doesn’t sound as romantic as Noah building Allie a house or *that* lift in Dirty Dancing, it certainly does make a lot of sense. But don’t let that stop you from making a big declaration of love. After all, the heart wants what it wants.

Megan Cuerden

Featured Photo by RODNAE Productions from Pexels. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image.

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