The Anatomy of Love

Science has identified three basic parts of love, each driven by a unique blend of brain chemicals.

Lust is governed by both estrogen and testosterone, in both men and women. Attraction is driven by adrenaline, dopamine, and serotonin—the same chemicals that are released by exciting, novel experiences. Long-term attachment is governed by a very different set of hormones and brain chemicals—oxytocin and vasopressin, which encourage bonding. Interestingly, oxytocin is known as the cuddle hormone, and is the hormone that drives the bond between mother’s and their children.  Each of these chemicals works in a specific part of the brain to influence lust, attraction and attachment.

Science has also shown that the process of falling in love can at times be a process that happens very quickly as often suggested in the term “Love At First Sight”. In small scale studies, subjects who engaged in deep conversations with complete strangers and made constant “eye contact” felt a deep and lasting connection, comparable to deep long lasting love.

Scientists research and studies even tests the degree to which we express four broad styles of thinking and behaving, each associated with one of four basic brain systems: the dopamine, serotonin, testosterone and estrogen systems. Generally we can categorize these four types as the:

  • Explorer: those who primarily express the traits linked with the dopamine system.
  • Builder: those who primarily express the traits linked with the serotonin system.
  • Director: those who primarily express the traits linked with the testosterone system.
  • Negotiator: those who primarily express the traits linked with the estrogen system.

We all express a combination of these four traits at different times, but generally we express some more than others. In fact, it is not unusual to express equal quantities of these temperaments. Moreover, each of us has a unique combination of overall traits, a unique “personality signature.”

Scientists initially designed a questionnaire to enable men and women to understand basic aspects of themselves and their romantic partners, as well as who they are most likely to be most attracted to, and their likely compatibility with their “soul mate”. However many have suggested we can also use this science to understand the basic personality style of your employers, colleagues, clients, friends, even parents, children and other kin.

What is our “personality signature?” And how does our style of thinking and behaving influence who we find romantically attractive, what you seek in a mate, and how we will get along with a long-term partner?

For the most part the science of love suggests that we, show activity in two specific regions of our brain when we are in love:  1) the Ventral Tegmental Area or VTA, located near the base of the brain; and 2) the Caudate Nucleus, a region of the Striatum – a multi-part brain area located a bit higher in the head.  The Caudate integrates your “rush” of romantic passion with your complex emotions and thoughts about your beloved. 

The Ventral Tegmental Area is part of the brain’s Reward System, the neural circuits that generate feelings of pleasure and motivation.   It is this brain region that manufactures dopamine, the brain chemical that gives you the energy, focus, ecstasy and the drive to seek, find and keep a romantic partner.  Remarkably, the VTA also becomes active when one feels the rush of cocaine.

One of the scientists conclusions is that the state of romantic love is a natural addiction– we are addicted or obsessed with another person when we are in love, but it’s a very good addiction to have when the relationship is a functional one.

The Caudate is also part of the Reward System.  It lies in the middle of your head and looks a bit like a medium-sized shrimp–two shrimp, actually, as each hemisphere of the brain has its own Caudate.   The caudate and other regions of the striatum have connections to the cerebral cortex, the top, muti-folded layer of the brain with which we do our thinking.  It has connections, too, with memory areas and with the VTA.  Indeed, the Caudate integrates data from many brain regions.   No part of the brain ever works alone, and love is no exception.  We speculate that as all of our thoughts, feelings and motivations associated with romantic love assemble in the caudate when we experience intense romantic passion.

Activation of the VTA and striatum supports two primary hypotheses:   first, that intense romantic love is associated with the Reward System that runs on dopamine;  second, that romantic love is not an emotion or even a series of emotions (although we feel many emotions when we are in love).   Instead, it is primarily an instinctual drive, a motivation to acquire a mate: a desirable mating partner.

Interestingly, the degree of passion individuals studied felt actually correlated with the degree of their activity in a few important brain regions.  In short, what these subjects said they felt was an accurate report of what was actually happening in their brain.

Curiously, participants in these studies all showed a deactivation in the amygdala:  when lovers looked at their lovers neural activity was less here than when they looked at the Neutral face.  The amygdala plays a significant role in generating fear and anger.  Is this why lovers often appear fearless when facing dire obstacles to their romance? Most likely yes.

All the lovers in these experiments used their cerebral cortex as they thought about their partner.  Cortical areas linked with emotion became active, too.

But these brain regions varied from one participant to the next, as you would expect.  No two people have the same personality; no two share the same memories, hopes and dreams; no two romances are exactly alike.

But the basic feeling of human romantic love is universal—emanating from ancient pathways that humans share with birds and other mammals, pathways that orchestrate basic reflex and survival systems, pathways that produce one of the world’s most powerful feelings: human romantic love.

The people we scanned in this study had been in love between 1 and 17 months.  Could the duration of one’s romance make a difference in their brain activity? Sure enough, individuals in longer relationships were quite similar to the participants in scientific studies. Activity in some parts of the brain is different, depending on how long we’ve been in love. Most important, our participants showed activity in the ventral pallidum–a brain region linked with feelings of attachment.

The ventral pallidum has a history in reserach on pair-bonding. 

Several other scientists have established that this brain region plays an important role in attachment to a partner, particularly in other animals.   So, with time, feelings of romantic love seem to become accompanied by feelings of deep attachment to a partner.

To understand what is going on in the brain when you have been rejected in love, And as Helen established in her interview with each participant before the experiment, none were entirely in control of their emotions or actions. Most were still calling their rejecter in the middle of the night, showing up unexpectedly to seduce or plead, or frantically sending emails–all in hopes of renewing the relationship. A few, on the other hand, had entirely given up–and slipped into profound despair.

The main results of our study showed that romantic rejection is like withdrawing from cocaine!  It also is like being in great physical pain.  Importantly, unconscious brain systems are working at evaluating the situation and starting to build a “new you.”

The brain studies show us that romantic rejection hurts just like physical pain, and it is like cocaine addiction.  We have to treat it like an addiction and think of it like a broken bone.  It will heal with time. It may even benefit from aspirin and other anti-inflammatoy medicines!  It’s important to go “cold turkey” and have nothing to do with the person who rejected us.

What is going on in the brain to create this madness we feel after rejection?

Rejected lovers showed activity in the ventral tegmental area (VTA), the brain region directly linked with feelings of passionate romantic love.  These lovers were still very much in love.   We also found activity in the ventral pallidum, a brain region linked with feelings of deep attachment.  What a bad deal.  You’ve just been dumped and you still feel intense romantic passion and a sense of extreme connection with your deserting love.

Moreover, love hurts.  Sceintists found activity in the anterior insula, a brain region linked not only with the distress that accompanies physical pain, but with physical pain itself.   Rejected lovers are in pain.  And scientists now think that we remember the physical pain of lost love much longer than the pain of a toothache or broken leg.  Years later we can still remember the physical agony of the loss of love.

Sceintists also found activity in the nucleus accumbens, a central part of the brain’s Reward System–the brain region linked with wanting, craving, energy, focus and motivation.   The nucleus accumbens has been clearly associated with all of the primary addictions, including one’s craving for cocaine, tobacco, alcohol, marijuana or heroin.

Romantic love is an addiction, a perfectly wonderful addition when things are going well, a perfectly horrible addiction when a partner departs for good.

Psychiatrists have suggested that there are two general phases of rejection: Protest and Resignation.

During the Protest Phase, men and women dedicate themselves to winning their partner back.  Restless energy, insomnia, loss of appetite (or binge eating), and obsessive thoughts about the beloved plague them.  Many sob; others drink too much, drive too fast, become reclusive and watch TV, or talk to friends and family incessantly about the evaporating partnership.  Intense longing, hope, regret, nostalgic reminiscing: they swing from one powerful emotion to the next.  Many suffer outbursts of fury too, known as “abandonment rage.” And zealously they search for clues of what went wrong and how to reconcile with their wayward mate.

The sexes often have different strategies for reunion, however.    Women try to seduce.  And they seek to “talk things out” with the beloved, searching to understand the situation.  Men, on the other hand, are more likely to challenge a rival, shower their lost love with presents and affection, or just attempt to look more important–buying a new car, wearing more expensive clothes, or regaling the errant lover with tales of their grand adventures.  And both sexes try to make their wandering partner jealous by showing up with others.

Alas, when they finally realize that their lover is gone forever, rejected people slump into hopelessness and despair–the Resignation Phase. Many become extremely lethargic.  They suffer from what academics call anhedonia, unable to find pleasure in anything at all. Some even die of a stroke or heart attack caused by stress.

What does commitment mean in terms of brain physiology?

1) Some infatuation

2) Attachment system activation at the unconscious level, using brain areas that have dopamine, oxytocin and vasopressin receptors.  These systems are used by other mammals for attaching to a partner.

3) Deactivation of brain areas that we use to judge others (!)  It looks like the brain is suspending judgment of the partner.   That can be a very good thing for the relationship.  We need “positive illusions” about our partner.  We need to think they are the greatest, even if we know they have faults.

4) Activation of areas that we use for cognitive control of emotions.  This is important when you are in a relationship.

5) Some activation of hormonal regions that may reduce feelings of stress.

6) Some deactivations that suggest incorporation of the other person into a sense of our own selves, even at the level of our own bodies.  The other person becomes part of our sense of “self.”

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