Valentine’s Day: What happens to your brain when you fall in love

Click to play video: 'The science behind falling in love'
The science behind falling in love
It’s the euphoric combination of the warm fuzzies, the pitter-patter of the heart, and a tunnel-vision focus on our partner. Well science has an explanation as to why this happens – Feb 12, 2016

Your heart is racing, your stomach is in knots and you can’t stop checking your phone. When you’re fall in love, your brain and body are flooded with feel-good chemicals, taking you on an emotional roller coaster.

Love is one of the most powerful desires in humans, according to Dr. Arthur Aron, world-renowned social psychologist and Stony Book University professor, who’s been studying love since 1968.

“Romantic love is a desire, a motivation, a drive. It’s as primitive as feeding hunger, wealth or power. It’s this intense drive to be connected and be united and close with this person,” he told Global News.

Dr. Lucy Brown, a neuroscientist at the Einstein College of Medicine, said the mechanisms behind falling in love are almost like a reflex, akin to breathing or swallowing. It’s happening to us unconsciously and out of our control.

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“You’re feeling drawn to that person. They become a goal in your life and that’s what brain studies told us – your brain physiology makes them like food or water when you’re in love,” Brown said.

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If you’re feeling like you’re addicted to your lover, there’s a reason why. It starts with dopamine, the chemical that controls your brain’s reward and pleasure centres and has been tied to drug addiction.

In studies Brown and Aron conducted, they had people look at images of their romantic interests while being hooked up to brain scanning machines.

The study participants looked at their partners and a similar-looking person. Turns out, when those being studied looked at their partners, their brains showed just how smitten they were: their reward centres lit up as dopamine coursed through their brains.

“If you’ve just recently fallen in love with someone, looking at their picture shows activation in these key areas. And it’s these same areas that respond to cocaine,” Aron said. Patients felt like they were on a high.

Dopamine is also tied to risk-taking, so it could explain why you may do silly things, which could be why the term “crazy in love” was coined.

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Then there’s serotonin: falling head over heels decreases your levels of this chemical that helps to regulate your mood.

If you’re happy one minute, then flying off the handle the next as you compulsively check your phone for a text message from your crush, that’s a dip in your serotonin, Dr. Oren Amitay, a clinical psychologist and Ryerson University instructor, said.

“They say this helps to explain why when you’re in love, you obsess and you can’t stop thinking of them,” he said. You have trouble focusing on conversations, your task at hand at work and even the TV show you’re watching at home.

Serotonin even tampers with your appetite – if you’ve lost your appetite out of nervous jitters or you’re eating your feelings, that’s why.

With your dopamine and serotonin levels in flux, it’s no wonder why you’re anxious.

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“You’re waiting to see them like you’re waiting for your next hit [of a drug],” Brown explained.
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And when you’re with the person you’re falling in love with, your heart skips a beat, your palms get sweaty and you’re restless. That’s the adrenaline and norepinephrine kicking in, the experts say.

Finally, oxytocin, nicknamed the “cuddle hormone,” flows into your system.

It’s especially released after you orgasm, and its notorious for making you want to bond and have genuine intimacy with your partner beyond the physical.

“The theory is that its nature’s way that once you’re finished the act, it makes you want to stay with the person and trust the person,” Amitay said.

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You can blame oxytocin for building up your sense of security, comfort and commitment with your partner as you develop a long-term love. While the passionate love and physical cravings you have for your loved one cools off, oxytocin cements your bond.

Love and attraction truly do bowl you over, too. Aron remembers the whirlwind romance he shared with his wife while he was studying at the Berkeley campus at the University of California.

They were doing group work in a psychology class and when they left the classroom on the last day, they kissed.

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“It was so intense. Basically that was it,” Aron explained.

“We didn’t even expect it. We just looked each other in the eyes and bang,” he said. After that, they were rearranging their lives to make sure their relationship was a priority. Two years later, they had their son.

Aron, and his wife, Dr. Elaine Spaulding, went on to study love and commitment for decades.

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They learned that long-lasting love exists, too. After working with couples who were married for decades – 21 years on average – they found that other brain regions were activated too. Dopamine levels weren’t off the charts anymore, but regions tied to attachment and liking a reward fired up.

In some couples, the honeymoon period wasn’t over even decades later, though.

“We’re talking about intense, new love with lots of physical and sexual aspects and intensity and we found it in some couples. Their brains looked like they’ve just fallen in love,” Aron said.

But if you’re worried about taking the plunge and giving yourself to another person, Aron suggests it’s worth a try.

“Getting addicted to romantic love is not such a bad thing. It means people stay together long enough to raise children and build a life together,” he said.

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