Love has fueled creation, destruction, and pretty much every human endeavor in between. What is it that makes love so powerful?
Thank the brain. When you fall in love, your brain creates a chemical cocktail that gives you intense pleasure and comfort. It also makes you a bit, well, obsessed with the object of your affections.
Studies have shown there is something different that goes on in your brain when you are in a passionate relationship compared to a friendly one. MRIs show that an area of the brain known as the pleasure center lights up when someone thinks of their lover in a way it doesn’t when they think of a friend, says Pepper Schwartz, Ph.D., sociologist at the University of Washington.
The pleasure center of the brain is the ventral tegmental area or VTA, says Larry Zweifel, Ph.D., associate professor of pharmacology at UW School of Medicine. It just so happens that the VTA is the same area of the brain that is also more active in people who have obsessive-compulsive disorder, adds Schwartz.
This explains some of the things that people do—like writing their lover’s name over and over or texting them one time too many—when they’re falling in love. People can get a bit obsessed with their love, but they come by this honestly, says Schwartz.
The ventral tegmental area is one of the main areas of the brain that produces dopamine, says Zweifel.
You’ve probably heard of dopamine before because it gets a lot of press for its role in everything from addiction to social media.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter—a chemical that allows the transmission of signals from one neuron to the next across the little spaces between them called synapses.
Dopamine is involved in many different pathways in the brain but is best known for its role in the mesolimbic pathway.
The mesolimbic pathway transports dopamine from the VTA to some important but hard-to-pronounce structures of your brain known as the nucleus accumbens, amygdala and hippocampus. These areas of your brain are involved in higher-level functions such as reward and motivation, emotional regulation and learning and memory, respectively.
Increases in dopamine help you to determine whether you like something or not and how motivated you are to engage in specific behaviors.
“The role of dopamine in love is still not well understood, but we do know that it signals how reinforcing something is or in other words, how much pleasure you get out of it. It also signals how motivated you are to attain that reinforcer,” says Zweifel.
So in love, dopamine signals how strongly you feel about your partner and the lengths you’re willing to go to because of those feelings.
In addition to lighting up your brain’s pleasure center and activating its pleasure pathway, falling in love also douses you with the hormone oxytocin. Oxytocin is known as the bliss hormone because it promotes feelings of comfort, joy, pleasure and contentment.
Oxytocin also strengthens feelings of social recognition and bonding. Oxytocin is secreted under a number of different conditions such as birth and breastfeeding—and also after male and female orgasm.
“Sex itself doesn’t release oxytocin,” says Schwartz. “It’s not from having sex; it’s from having an orgasm.”
So it’s oxytocin that’s responsible for that rosy afterglow, thank you very much.
When you fall in love, your system is also adrenalized, says Schwartz. Adrenaline, known as the fight or flight hormone, is a hormone that fires in insecure circumstances. And love at the start is often just that.
Your body pumps out adrenaline to react to challenges.
“In the same way that you become nervous when you are about to participate in an athletic event or give a speech, you may become nervous awaiting that call or text from your beloved. When you get the call or text, you are excited and happy, so it’s a reinforcement cycle,” she says.
It’s like when you want a piece of chocolate, Schwartz explains. You could have resisted the first piece, but now that you’ve had one, it’s really hard not to have another because it was really rewarding.
If that pleasure reinforcement is stopped short—say you’ve been ghosted—some people experience intense feelings that go beyond anything they have experienced before.
That would be dopamine again. Dopamine not only signals good or bad, but also our expectations.
If you expect something will be bad, but it turns out to be much better than expected, your dopamine system will be strongly activated.
Conversely, if you have high expectations about your partner and their commitment and they betray your expectations, then your dopamine levels drop, resulting in a type of depression-like state, says Zweifel.
With all these chemical bombarding our brains and bodies, how can we tell if what we’re experiencing is love or just a series of chemical events?
“You sure don’t know during this period,” says Schwartz. “It’s virtually impossible to sort out when we’re in the throes of falling in love.”
Indeed love is a tricky thing to define by science alone.
If you think about it in terms of motivation and reward, finding the right partner is finding someone who both reinforces your belief system and who you find compatibility with sexually, says Zweifel.
“Finding that person activates your brain’s reward and motivational centers that drive your desire to spend time with them,” he says.
The way you know it’s love is that it settles down, says Schwartz. Your feelings of sexual excitement become part of what you have as opposed to most of what you have. The adrenalized and hormonalized aspect of getting to know each other transitions into a deeper understanding of everything that person is—including limitations, boundaries and flaws. But for now, who cares if it’s love or oxytocin? You’ll figure that out soon enough. For today, just enjoy.