What's going on in your brain when you fall in love...
Valentine's Day is around the corner. Do you have a crush on someone? Thinking of sending someone a special message, or asking someone out on a date? Do you ever wonder how and why we feel the need for love? And what happens to your brain when you fall in love?
Let's explore the brain science of falling in love, this is very different from the brain science of being in love, which I will cover in another blog post. If you are feeling nervous about the journey through falling and being in love; keep going, you and your brain will love it!
Your teenage brain is glorious - if you didn’t know that already. Neuroscience has shown that the brain goes through critical periods of growth and development - while in the womb, the first year of life, and the early years, right into adulthood. What scientists have more recently discovered is that the brain undergoes a 'secret mission' of change between the age of 12 to 19 years that is truly unique.
Falling in Love
Your need for love is innate, and there are many kinds of love: parental love, sibling love, your love of friends; but romantic love is quite unique.
The brain undergoes changes during the process of falling in love, changes that may surprise you. When you fall in love, your brain and your body are in a state of stress and high arousal. The increased release of cortisol and norepinephrine (both stress hormones) causes sweaty plams, a racing heart, sleeplessness, loss of appette, inability to speak, and a willingness to take risks. Does that sound familiar? So if you see your heart's desire and you start to feel like you are going to vomit, and can't get a sentence out of your mouth - this is totally normal - it's your body and brain's way of managing the stress it's under.
What occurs concurrently might seem counter intutitive, but the feel-good hormone serotonin nose dives, and reduces your initial feeling of wellbeing and happiness. Why would this be? Why would your body and brain adapt to make you feel bad when you fall in love? Rember we are talking about 'falling in love' not 'being in l0ve'.
Quite simply, falling in love is dangerous. Your brain and body don't want you to do it too often. In fact brain disorders such as obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and schizophrenia present in a similar way neurochemically to your brain falling in love: low serotonin and high cortisol. Researchers have argued that the first flush of love is like an obession or a compulsion, and distorts your reality - you cannot think of anything else but your heart's desire.
In fact the area of the brain associated with making you aware of danger, or making you aware of warning signs of potentially bad situations, becomes hijacked during the initial stages of falling in love. Not being able to detect dangers in your surroundings is not a good thing for your survival, so you brain is trying to protect you from danger by making falling in love feel so stressful. In addition the anterior cingulate cortex and prefrontal cortex - the areas associated with perception and thinking are inhibited. It's no wonder you can't think straight when you fall in love. The saying "Love is blind" is true brain science!
Being in Love
So if falling in love is dangerous, why do we do it? Why does it feel so good to be in love whilst falling in love feels so bad! Well, blame it on the ventral tegmental area (VTA). The VTA is the brain's reward pathway, and it floods your brain with dopamine, encouraging you to seek you your desired one. A dopamine high is very addictive, it overrides all your other thought processes. The reward from the VTA pathway when your beloved is around, thought about, or talked about is so great that you are unable to stop yourself. Your brain is encouraging you to push through the dangerous and precarious process of 'falling in love' for the reward of 'being in love'.
The hormones oxytocin (the "love hormone") and vasopressin are involved with pair bonding, and are released anytime you have contact with your beloved. For boys the hormone testosterone is also released, making you feel like a super hero! The rush of oxytocin, testosterone, and vasopressin when your first touch or kiss the person you have a crush on is so great, that it is very hard to replicate in subsequent encounters with your loved one.
Falling in love is not really a "feeling". Scientifically, it is an addiction and a very powerful hormonal cocktail - a process of action and reward driven by hormones. Although falling in love is taxing on the brain due to the suppression of the amygdala or the lack of awareness of potential dangers, it still feels amazing.
So back to Valentine's Day... the amazing feeling of 'being in love' is exactly why you should follow your heart and ask your crush out. You never know where it might lead to, maybe even a lifetime of love. And love really is good for the brain!
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