Love in the Brain

  • Published1 Jul 2011
  • Reviewed1 Jul 2011
  • Source BrainFacts/SfN

Is love a feeling in the heart and soul — or chemical reaction in our brains? Irene Suh, a secondary student at Troy High School in Troy, Mich., with Thomas Fisher, an associate professor at Wayne State University, explores this fundamental question in this 2011 Brain Awareness Video Contest submission.



This is the story of a girl and a boy. Or a girl and a girl. Or a boy and a boy. Or a boy and multiple girls. Or vice versa. Point being, this is the story of what happens when somebody meets the one. 

But what is love anyway, and why does it make it so thrilling to see that one person smile, and so great to be alive? And so hard to say goodbye. 

Is love really in the heart and soul? Or is it literally all in our head? One Web site claims that “with an irresistible cocktail of chemicals, our brain entices us to fall in love.” Another says that “science suggests we’re neurologically wired to look for romance. But how to tell if it will last is another question.” 

Professor Helen Fisher, a well know love researcher and anthropologist at Rutgers University, concluded from her studies that there are three stages to romantic love: lust, attraction, and attachment. By using functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, she discovered that the main causes for these stages appear to be neurotransmitters and hormones. 

Stage 1: Lust. Lust is the craving for sexual gratification. It is driven by the sex hormones testosterone and estrogen, in men and women respectively. 

Stage 2: Attraction. This is the stage that most would call romantic or passionate love. It is characterized by euphoria, mood swings, focused attention, obsessive thinking, and intense cravings. This is when you are so love struck that you can only think of, well, not much else. Scientists think that three main neurotransmitters are involved in this stage: adrenaline, dopamine, and serotonin. 

Falling for someone initially activates your stress response, causing the adrenal medulla to increase the amount of adrenaline and cortisol being secreted into the blood stream. These neurotransmitters are responsible for sweat, racing heartbeat, and dry mouth. 

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter made from the amino acid tyrosine. It is synthesized in the terminal buttons of neurons. The ventral tegmental area of the brain, or VTA, contains a lot of dopamine-making cells. Professor Helen Fisher says that “couples often show the signs of surging dopamine: increased energy, less need for sleep or food… and exquisite delight in smallest details.” 

And finally, serotonin. Researchers at University College London discovered that people in love have lower levels of serotonin. These lower serotonin levels are the same as those found in people with obsessive compulsive disorder, possibly explaining why people in love obsess about their partners.

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