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Love lights up your brain and helps your heart

Romantic love can make us feel and act in intense ways.

There’s a reason Queen sang about this “crazy little thing called love” and Beyonce told us love had her “looking so crazy right now”.

New love can make us feel euphoric one moment, anxious the next and the cocktail of chemicals released during the process might even stop us from eating or sleeping.

Fun hey? Well fortunately there are also health benefits from this complex emotional experience so many of us chase in life.

But how much pleasure you get from love, and how motivated you are to attain and sustain it, partly comes down to genetics.

Let’s look first, at what’s going on in the control room.

The brain in love

The heart symbol has long symbolised love, but it should really be brain emojis that we text to our beloved.

In that initial stage of love when we feel obsessed with someone, there’s a lot going on in the brain.

Just looking at a photo of our loved one increases neural activity deep within the brain in areas associated with reward – the caudate nucleus, the ventral tegmental area and the nucleus accumbens.

This brings on a rush of the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine, which is released when we feel pleasure – like after we eat a great meal, complete a workout or kiss someone.

A diagram pointing out the major dopaminergic pathways in the brain
The pathways that dopamine can take through the brain. (Supplied: ResearchGate)

The brain’s reward system uses dopamine to send us back for more, says Theresa Larkin, associate professor of medical sciences at the University of Wollongong.

“Being with someone or just the feeling of desire, is a nice reward which can then stimulate more dopamine to increase your motivation to seek that reward again,” she says.

It’s what makes us find excuses to see someone again, or ask for a second date immediately after the first is over.

The limbic system also has a seat at the table when we’re falling in love.

Buried deep in the brain near the caudate nucleus, it includes the amygdala, hippocampus and hypothalamus, which are all involved in behavioural and emotional responses, including memory and smell.

“That’s why the smell of a person can remind us ‘I really like this person.'” says Dr Larkin.

A photo of the back of two men walking hand in hand.

Meanwhile there’s a slowdown of activity in the frontal cortex, which is responsible for judgement of others and negative emotions.

“They get inhibited early on so you don’t see that person’s faults which can make us ‘blind in love’.”

The bad news is the stress hormone cortisol rises during this phase which can make you feel insecure, and the ‘fight or flight’ chemical noradrenaline joins the party to make your palms sweat and heart race.

And finally, high levels of another mood-regulating neurotransmitter called serotonin have been linked to women having obsessive thoughts about a loved one.

How ‘in love’ are you?

The Bee Gees once asked “How deep is your love?” and if we want to figure that out scientifically, we can look to psychology.

World-first Australian research recently looked at how the behavioural activation system (BAS) responded in over 800 people who had been in love for no more than two years.

BAS sounds complicated but it’s just about your natural disposition to pursue goals and how you react when there’s a potentially rewarding situation.

If you have high BAS sensitivity, you’re more likely to eagerly seek rewards, be extroverted and more impulsive.

BAS is measured by analysing someone’s reward responsiveness, drive and fun-seeking, and the study found those with higher BAS sensitivity felt love more intensely.

A couple lie in the grass, heads tilted towards each other.
Ancient Greeks equated love to a type of madness. (Flickr: Boris SV)

And in case you’re wondering how do you even measure love, scientists use the ‘Passionate Love Scale’ or the PLS-30.

If you’re going to take the test with your dearest, expect questions about how much you “melt” when you look in their eyes, or how distressed you’d be if they left you.

Whether you have high BAS sensitivity depends primarily on your genes but your environment also plays a part, says lead researcher Adam Bode, a romantic love and human mating researcher at the Australian National University.

“It would be primarily biology but there would be a social component.”

When love is here to stay

After the initial explosion of romance, we start to feel calmer and more connected to our loved one.

That’s because oxytocin, known as the love hormone, rises and promotes feelings of trust and commitment.

It’s released when we bond with family members, friends and even pets too.

Oxytocin also increases the salience of our loved one – in other words, how special and important we perceive them to be.

And there’s a link between oxytocin and the dopamine we get hooked on in the earlier attraction phase.

“The most common way for salience to happen is for oxytocin to be released, it then binds to an oxytocin receptor which then triggers the release of dopamine,” says Mr Bode.

Couple dancing.jpg
While love can fade over time, it can also get stronger. (KatarzynaBialasiewicz/Getty)

If love lasts and the couple stay together, passionate love tends to evolve into what’s known as companionate love.

Psychologists have described this as a stable love that’s rooted in friendship, deep respect and care for the welfare of your partner.

As US psychology professor Virgil Sheets puts it, passionate love is the hot, unpredictable flames of a fire and companionate love is the embers that stay alive through the night.

Some studies have found companionate love can fade over time, the same way passionate love fades for around 20 to 40 per cent of couples. Other research has shown that reward pathways activated in the initial stages of love still light up when someone sees a photo of their partner even after 20 years of marriage

Health pros and cons

Fleetwood Mac said “You make loving fun” but it turns out loving can also be healthy.

Oxytocin has anti-inflammatory and anti-stress effects and can help cardiovascular function, Dr Larkin says.

The release of oxytocin stimulates the hormone atrial natriuretic peptide (ANP), which regulates blood pressure and can prevent thickening of the heart muscle.

Romantic love is also linked to the positive side effects of hypomania, which is when you have abnormally high energy and extreme emotions.

This can lead to increased physical activity, reduced depression and better sleep for some people, but it’s important to note others might actually end up feeling more irritable or anxious instead.

And because romantic love is all-consuming, unfortunately it can distract us from things we know will be good for us such as physical exercise, career-advancing activities and putting time into our other social relationships.

Why some love isn’t forever

We all have differing baseline levels of oxytocin and dopamine, so we won’t all put our sweethearts on a pedestal to the same extent.

Dr Larkin suggests if someone needs a lot of dopamine to activate their reward system, they could potentially get ‘bored’ with their partner after a while and seek a new love interest to get a bigger dopamine hit.

Someone who is more motivated by the attachment oxytocin brings, might prefer to meet one person and make that work.

Mr Bode also believes the all-important question of whether you will stay in love is genetically determined.

“[Falling out of love] probably has something to do with the genes getting fed up and saying ‘That’s long enough’, but we don’t know, no-one has ever researched this.”

Interestingly, a study from Yale University found genetic dispositions can play a role in how happy and secure a married couple is

It found that when one person in a couple had a particular genetic variation within their oxytocin receptor, they reported far higher marital satisfaction than those who didn’t.

But Mr Bode says there’s a lot more research to be done on this topic as science still can’t predict a successful romantic relationship.

He says some researchers appear to be afraid to study the topic.

“They’re interested in it but are worried they will get made fun of by their colleagues.

“But Australia is positioning itself to be a world leader in romantic love research;Does the science we have 10 studies coming out this year.”

Does the science of love interest you? Are we all ‘junkies’ when it comes to fell-good hormones? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

© 2020 Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved.
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