Humans and Health

Love’s Idiot: The Science Behind Falling in Love

Eva Hughes-Sutton

I was 17 years old, five minutes into a deep drunk-chat in the bathroom of a house party (no less) when I asked my friend the age-old question, the one that had burned in the forefront of my mind since I first watched Jack and Rose kiss on the Titanic when I was a kid – what does it feel like to fall in love?

Looking at it from the outside in, from watching my friends enter relationships before me to daydreaming about fictional characters and their romantic escapades, love appeared to me to be otherworldly. It seemed like an out-of-body experience that occurred by fortuitous happenstance, fated when you were struck by Cupid’s arrow square in the chest.  

I was in my final year of A-Levels when it was finally my turn to fall head over heels. Except instead, I tumbled over my ankles and crashed head-first straight into the nearest wall. My A-Level work began to look like squiggles on a piece of paper, my meals unappetizing, sleep suddenly for the weak as I was taken over by a constant state of anxious excitement; that sent my body keeling over with a buzzing, whirring feeling like you would have after just coming off a 300-foot roller coaster. A middle-of-the-night frantic Google search of the science behind love assured me that I wasn’t alone in my experience. I wasn’t going mad. I was just falling in love. 

The Science of Love:

The research conducted by human behaviourist Dr Helen Fisher and her team of scientists concludes that we can divide love into three categories: lust, attraction and attachment. The three categories are defined by their own set of hormones that are released in the brain as one falls in love. 

With lust comes the sex hormones testosterone and oestrogen as we feel sexual desire towards somebody – where, according to researchers, we are subconsciously choosing a “potential mate” based on their pheromones (a chemical that an animal produces that changes the behaviour of another animal of the same species) and their appearance. 

From lust we may develop attraction, in which our brain produces dopamine – the “feel-good” hormone related to our brain’s reward pathway that releases when we do things that bring us joy.  Here comes the infamous “honeymoon stage”, where excessive amounts of dopamine may cause us to feel so much excitement towards our love interest that our appetite may decrease, as does our ability to fall asleep.

This only reminds me of my 18-year-old self rushing dinner to run back to her phone to start another evening of endless late-night texting and giggling under the covers until the early hours of the morning. Possibly endearing, or perhaps silly? Most likely the latter, but I can blame the chemicals now. 

I was, in short, love’s idiot.

Attachment tends to come in longer-lasting romances and is associated with oxytocin, nicknamed the “cuddle hormone”, and vasopressin, both important for intimacy and bonding with your partner. This mixture of “happy” chemicals are said to even have health benefits such as possibly boosting our immune system and even lowering our blood pressure. What could go wrong? 

For me, the experience wasn’t all so great. I was, in short, love’s idiot. I felt like a recipe for disaster, a stumbling, sweaty-palmed nervous wreck, racking myself up a list of stupid choices and embarrassing moments that I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to live down. This could be explained by researchers who have likened the experience of being in love to an addiction, where some may become addicted to the dopamine that’s released by the brain upon seeing their partner.

This may lead to emotional dependency, where one may even suffer from withdrawal when they cannot be with their love interest. Moreover, high levels of oxytocin can cause intense jealousy and the attraction stage can cause reductions in serotonin (associated with our mood and appetite).

Some scientists have compared this reduction to those with obsessive-compulsive disorder as they are more likely to have low levels of serotonin, which may perhaps explain the intense obsession felt when someone falls in love. This wonderful combination may cause those in love to be less able to make rational decisions, thus making them more likely to act rashly and recklessly.

But can we define this obsessive nature as love? Is it not just infatuation? Or are they the same?

For me, love can never be wholly explained or defined.

It’s Up to You

While the scientific explanations behind falling in love do seem to match up with my own personal experience (and as aforementioned, provided some much needed reassurance), research is still ongoing, incomplete and in some cases, heteronormative and restrictive.

Almost three years have passed since I fell in love with my partner and the love I have for them now feels like something bigger and better than a dopamine-induced high. 

We must decide for ourselves what love means to us and hold other forms of love, whether this be self-love or the love we have for friends and family, as equally valid and important. For me, love can never be wholly explained or defined. There is no right or wrong interpretation – it is entirely up to you, and that’s what has always made love enticing and exciting, not only to try to understand, but to feel. 

If you’re anything like the sentimental daydreamer that I am, I think that no matter the scientific proof, love will always feel magical and fairytale-fated. Even if it can make us a little bit of an idiot.

Eva Hughes-Sutton

Featured image courtesy of Elena Mozhvilo via Unsplash. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image.

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