Why Do We Love? The Science of Our Oldest Drive

FAR FROM SMOOTH

But as a million rock songs and movies have shown (to say nothing of anyone who’s ever experienced it firsthand), love can be as crushing as it is transcendent. Rejection, loneliness, and jealousy are all just a part of the neurochemical package.


When it comes to survival of the species, the reason love can be so painful might be because our body knows we’ve failed at the crucial game of passing our genes on, at least temporarily. After all, we’re built to reproduce, not to be happy.

But inside our individual heads, it can be a case study of a system gone haywire. If we’re in love with someone who doesn’t know we’re alive or laughs in our face, the pain of rejection is partly from soaring dopamine and norepinephrine levels (many assume a huge injection of the “happy hormone” of dopamine will simply make us deliriously gleeful). Such brain activity can in turn reduce mental controls that normally hold us back from the actions of murder, suicide, or violence that sometimes result from love gone wrong.

Nor do the lust/romance/attachment stages of love always happen in a neatly predisposed pattern. Romantic love can peter out without leading to attachment and as many casual lovers know, lust doesn’t have to lead to romantic love.

But the opposite is also true. Orgasms produce spikes of hormones that can promote falling in love, even if you’re only in the market for a one-night stand. A rush of vasotocin can make you feel attached to a lover you’ve only known for half an hour.

You can feel sexually attracted to one person and form a romantic attachment or a pair bond with someone else. The line between human behavior in its most primal state and centuries of cultural conditioning is blurry at best, but neuroscience might finally give us a deeper insight than we’ve ever had.

HIJACKING NATURE

Understanding how brain chemistry underscores our emotional state when we’re in love raises the specter of trying to control or affect it artificially. Some recreational drugs give the brain a similar high to the euphoria of falling in love, which explains not only the addictive nature of love and lust, but also the opportunity to abuse the brain’s natural function in pursuit of pleasure.

The problem is that the matrix of the body and brain is a far more finely tuned system that we are only beginning to understand, and drugs used to co-opt it are very clumsy and blunt instruments. Overprescription of antidepressants, for example, remains a common problem.


Selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (such as Prozac, Lexapro, or Zoloft) raise serotonin and suppress dopamine, which is one of the actors in promoting feelings of romantic love. They also kill the sex drive, and without an orgasm you can cut off feelings of attachment. Too many antidepressants can interfere with the systems that regulate lust, romantic love, and attachment.

This article was originally published in the Winter 2015 issue of Brain World Magazine.

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