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The Neuroscience of Love: Why it is so Addictive and Obsessive

Love is one of the greatest emotions one can experience; however, it is arguably the most vulnerable of emotions.  Current awareness of neuroscience explains the love phenomenon in the brain.  Before we break down what is going on in the brain, we need not let science take away the magic of being in love.

Love is Addictive

Thinking about one’s beloved—especially in new relationships—triggers activity in the ventral tegmental area (VTA) of the brain, which releases a flood of the neurotransmitter dopamine (the so-called “pleasure chemical”) into the brain’s reward (or pleasure) centers, the caudate nucleus and nucleus accumbens.  This gives the lover a high not unlike the effect of narcotics, and it’s unbelievably addictive.

At the same time, the brain in love experiences an increase in the stress hormone norepinephrine, which increases heart rate and blood pressure, effects similar to those experienced by people using addictive stimulant drugs.

Love is Obsessive

The brain in love experiences a drop in the neurotransmitter serotonin.  Serotonin provides a sense of being in control, and it guards against the anxiety of uncertainty and instability.  When serotonin levels drop, our feelings of being in control diminish.  We become obsessively fixated on things that rattle our certainty and stability cages.  Because love is by definition unpredictable, it’s a prime target for obsession.  This explains the phrase “crazy in love.”

Love is Prone to Recklessness

The prefrontal cortex—our brain’s reasoning command and control center—drops into low gear when we’re in love.  At the same time, the amygdala, a key component of the brain’s threat-response system, also revs down.  The combination of these effects is a willingness to take more risks—even ones that would normally seem reckless to us in another state of mind.

Love vs. Lust

Love and lust appear to be separate but overlapping neural responses in the brain.  They both produce an addictive high, and they affect many of the same parts of the brain—but they are distinct enough that you can be in love with one person and in lust with another.

Over time, the differences become more significant.  For example, the brains of people in long-term love relationships show increased activity in the ventral pallidum, a region of the brain rich with oxytocin and vasopressin receptors that facilitate long-term pair-bonding and attachment.

Men in Love

Men in love are extremely visual beasts.  The brains of men in love show greater activity in the visual cortex than women’s brains.

Women in Love

Women in love remember the details.  The brains of women in love show greater activity in the hippocampus—the brain region associated with memory—than do men’s brains.

Eye Contact is the Love Potion

More than any other factor, eye contact is the main means for emotional connection.  When those in love speak of the “entrancing gaze” of their lover, it’s not just a romantic notion—it’s a biological reality.  Eye contact and a smile are an especially potent combination.

Works Cited:
1.  The neuroscience of love, addiction. Science Pub. n.d. Web. 13 March 2013.

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Filed under: Addiction, Featured, Love and Relationships, Research · Tags: anxiety, brain, control, drugs, emotion, eye contact, love, nuerotransmitters, obsession

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