Your Brain and Love – Enemies or Best Friends?
Love is a problem.
We can’t avoid it, we can’t reject it, and neither can we understand it fully. Not even science has all the answers. And love causes problems. All existing languages in the world have variously described this particular state of mind as ‘blindness’, ‘folly’, ‘lunacy’, ‘addiction’, and what not.
Because like as not, love brings about a sea change in your brain, and that affects multiple things in your body and subsequently your life. In fact, neuroscience says love activates precisely the same areas of brains that are activated when you are on drugs or Opioids. But this isn’t all so negative, you might say. Why, love can also make you feel wonderful and fulfilled, and in fact has been known to bring lasting happiness to people.
This Valentine’s Day, then, let’s delve a little deeper into this paradox called love, and see what it does to your brain.
The addictive rush
- Know that feeling you get when you are close to someone you are attracted to? “Butterflies in stomach” is a poetic way to put it, but the things actually active inside your body at this moment are not butterflies – they are hormones. Dopamine, Oxytocin, and sex hormones like estrogen and testosterones are all rushing at the moment, to create that feeling of intense euphoria. This works on various levels.
- The release of ‘happy hormones’ activate the reward circuit of your brain, which gives you a ‘high’ of pleasure and makes you want to reach that reward again and again.
- Extra adrenaline in your blood makes your heart beat faster and pushes you to bring that rewarding feeling back again and again; this is the addictive high.
- Romantic love can cause your Serotonin levels fall, leading to heightened anxiety and stress. These are feelings that your brain normally associates with danger, and hence it pushes you to focus single-mindedly on attaining the reward of pleasurable hormones again and again. This can actually create tremendous amount of stress.
- It messes with your cognitive control, which is why you find it so hard to pay attention to the other areas of your life. The adrenaline rush also causes a decrease in fear and caution, so you are less likely to have social filters at this time, which makes it harder for you to see any potential fault in the person you are interested in. This is why your actions sometimes can be interpreted as ‘stupid’.
The fulfillment effect
But love does not have to be this stressful. Long-term, happy relationships actually have the opposite effect. The initial angst and emotional roller-coaster subsides in about two years. What began as a cause for stress, now becomes a buffer against it.
This primary stage of romance is termed as ‘liminence’ by scientists. This obsessive and stressful attraction period keeps the people involved attached to and eager for each other long enough for them to figure out if they are compatible enough. Ideally, by the time this initial high subsides, incompatible people will become aware that they do not match, and the subsiding of the pleasurable high gives them the reason to move on.
But people who find themselves happy with each other even after the strong pull fades, now begin to experience the joy of companionship. Cortisol and Serotonine levels go back to normal, ending the stress effect. The constant craving goes away but the company still brings a sense of reward. This is the point your relationship stops being a stressor itself and becomes a shield against external ones. Because, now your brain has learned to trust your partner and their presence brings you both joy and security.
Love is a complicated emotion, and there are several facets of it that can go out of hand and bring you lasting hardship. The addictive, obsessive phase can often become unhealthy or even toxic, and heartbreaks can have the exact opposite effect of the reward system, that is the state of complete hopelessness. Yet it is still one of the most magical things in the whole wide world, and certainly the most mysterious.
And what is life without a dash of magic and mystery?