Understanding Dopamine: Love Hormones And The Brain
Dopamine is one type of neurotransmitter that affects different areas of the brain and governs the pituitary gland. It is associated with feelings of pleasure, motivation, and reward, as well as maintaining movement. Activities that trigger a rush of dopamine cause the brain to assign importance to them, motivating the individual to pursue those feelings.
The release of dopamine controls what has become known as the "reward system" in the brain. This series of processes is linked to multiple areas that process emotion, direct focus, and reward seeking. The feelings triggered by dopamine include but aren’t limited to, sexual desire and romantic love.
What is dopamine’s relationship with love?
When we experience love, especially early on, the brain releases high amounts of dopamine along with other hormones. The euphoric feeling of dopamine release causes a “high” that has been compared to that of cocaine. Studies show that when people view pictures of their romantic partners, multiple areas of the brain are flooded with dopamine, triggering those euphoric feelings.
Dopamine is what is responsible for bodily changes associated with attraction, too. When you're around someone you have strong romantic feelings for, you may notice your pulse quicken, your breathing gets shallow, or your cheeks flush. These are all biological processes that are partially caused by increased levels of dopamine. Cortisol and norepinephrine may also be increased, causing us to experience a feeling of urgency and to think frequently about the person we have romantic feelings for.
Dopamine and searching for a partner
The continuation of our species depends on our ability to reproduce; therefore, our biology still drives us to find a mate. This is one illustration of why dopamine was designed to elicit feelings of romantic love.
Interestingly, the brain's reward cycle may be triggered in a stronger way when we perceive the person we are interested in as "hard to get." The chase aspect of this type of dating can activate a strong rush of dopamine and perhaps sex hormones as well.
This system can also work against us when we look at it in the larger context of dating in modern times. With the advent of the internet and dating apps, which have presented us with more options for potential partners than ever before, our reward system has the potential to be sidetracked by every new opportunity.
This might give you a clue about how the brain pathways work when it comes to such associations. Knowing the underlying neurobiological process at work when you're attracted to someone can help you determine whether you truly want to pursue a relationship with them or may perhaps just be influenced by a temporary influx of brain activity.
Dopamine in early relationships
Dopamine appears at an all-time high when we're first pursuing the initial stages of a relationship with someone in whom we're very interested. This high level of dopamine makes new love feel extremely rewarding, exciting, and worth pursuing over other things. You may feel like you've found your soul mate and like the connection between the two of you is unlike anything else.
There's nothing wrong with these feelings, even though they may lead to less than positive emotions at times. In fact, they are an important part of building the foundation of a long-term relationship. If you and your partner are a good match, this initial dopamine rush can plant the seed for a powerful connection that lasts over time.
Some people may realize once the dopamine “high” wears off that they are no longer as interested in their partner, or they might not necessarily feel as attached. Others may feel distraught upon discovering they don't feel the same rush that they once did, leading some people to end a relationship prematurely because they perceive this as a negative thing. However, it's normal for the first wave of chemicals that influence love to cool off as a relationship matures to be replaced by neurochemicals that foster attachment and connection.
Neurochemicals in mature relationships
After about six months to a year of being together, dopamine and cortisol ease. Instead, other neurochemicals related to long-term attachment are released- the most notable one being oxytocin. Oxytocin is the same chemical involved in the connection between mothers and infants, meaning it is responsible for parent-infant bonding, as it facilitates bonding and dependability. Known as the "bonding hormone" or the "cuddle chemical," oxytocin is released through many activities, including holding hands and hugging.
Oxytocin’s role is to encourage us to develop trust in the person we're with. This social trust has been a crucial part of survival since the beginning of human civilization and is hardwired into the brain.
The reason ‘love is blind'
Interestingly, along with all the positive feelings that dopamine provides, there are also other neurobiological changes that lower our perception of negative attributes about the object of our affection. There are evolutionary reasons for this so-called love blindness. Your genes don't care whether you and your potential mate have the same taste in TV shows and political attitudes. They are only focused on your compulsion to reproduce. This may be a key difference between physical attraction and aesthetical attraction.
That's why people sometimes tend to look at their new love interest through a near-perfect lens. You've possibly had the experience of looking back at a former crush many months or years later and wondering why you were attracted to them. You can thank the neurobiology of attraction. It's the closest thing we know to a love spell cast by our own brain chemistry.
A word on endorphins
When we experience physical or emotional pain, such as receiving a cut or being rejected by a mate, endorphins are released by the brain to numb the pain. This can cause problems if we're in a troubled relationship. When we are hurt by someone we love, either physically or emotionally, the same endorphins are released. Because of the brain's neuroplasticity, an association is formed between that pain and the release of euphoric endorphins to make you think they are closely related and necessary.
This is one reason why people may end up in long-term abusive or troubled relationships. The brain may associate a reward between pain and pleasure. Knowing this, you can intellectually overcome this association and decide whether a relationship is truly beneficial to you.
Sustaining a relationship over time
Once the initial boost of brain chemicals or primary hormones wears off, sustaining a relationship with someone we love may take more work and effort. While the initial neurochemical flood bonded you together, at this point, it's up to you and your partner to decide if your relationship is worth building into the future.
A successful relationship takes communication, support, and compromise and requires both partners to work together to achieve this goal. Falling in love may not take much effort but staying in love and making the relationship thrive depends on both people making the choice to commit to one another. This allows an attachment to grow over time, strengthening the bond.
What about when a relationship ends?
The end of a relationship can be a uniquely painful experience, especially if the relationship was developed over a long period of time and both people still care about each other. This is in part due to the strong bonds that form in the brain. When a relationship ends, especially if the other party ends it, the brain's levels of dopamine and serotonin are temporarily lowered. In addition, stress hormones are raised as the brain tries to restore what was lost. In some instances, this may lead to clinical depression.
The neural pathways that were established during the relationship are hard to break, and the brain may literally go into withdrawal for a short amount of time. This tendency is what drives some people to try to reconnect with their ex to relieve the pain. However, in time, these connections are lessened, and the brain can restore normative functioning.
Therapy can help escalate this process for individuals who may be struggling to recover after the end of a relationship. This may be a way to work on stimulating your serotonin levels as well if need be. When your serotonin levels dip too low, this can potentially cause a number of mental health issues, including obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Online therapy for relationships
Every relationship runs into problems from time to time, especially as it matures from the early honeymoon phase into more mature love. Some people are hesitant to seek the advice of a therapist regarding their relationship because they're worried it's admitting there's something wrong or it makes them feel vulnerable.
However, choosing to pursue therapy, either individually or together as a couple, shows your commitment to making the relationship work despite any obstacles you may be facing. If you’re ready to strengthen your relationship, a therapist can help you learn effective communication skills and better ways to relate to your partner.
The rise in popularity and proven effectiveness of online therapy has made it easier to speak to a therapist with experience in helping couples work through their challenges and difficulties. With online platforms like BetterHelp, you can book sessions online anytime, anywhere with an internet connection.
How does love affect dopamine?
According to an article from Harvard Medical School, dopamine is a natural chemical that affects the brain’s reward pathways and reward detection in the ventral tegmental area, including the nucleus accumbens. In other words, this hormone is responsible for activity in the brain’s rewards center—the same brain regions associated with drug addiction.
When you fall in love, it can trigger the release of dopamine, which is why it may feel pleasurable or euphoric for a time. Oxytocin levels may also rise, which is another hormone (“the cuddle hormone”) related to love and affection. A very strange assortment of other physical effects of feelings of love are possible as well, including decreased appetite, an increase in focused attention on the object of one's affections, increased sweating and nervousness, and a slight decrease in critical thinking abilities related to decision-making.
Note, however, that if you experience persistent, significant changes in appetite—such as rarely feeling the desire to eat, binge eating, or experiencing concerning thoughts related to food or body image—that it could be a sign of a mental health condition like depression or an eating disorder. Seeking professional support as soon as possible is recommended.
If you or a loved one is experiencing an eating disorder, you can contact the National Eating Disorder Association Helpline for support and resources at 1-800-931-2237 (M–Th from 9AM–9PM EST and Fri 9AM–5PM EST).
How long does dopamine last in love?
Estimates vary, but research suggests that the strongest effects of the release of the love hormone dopamine on the brain’s reward pathways begin to fade anywhere from six months to a year after developing feelings of romance or passionate love for someone in the context of typical social behavior. Unrequited love over a similar period can also result in a decrease in that initial spike of dopamine.
How to increase dopamine in love?
It’s natural for levels of dopamine and oxytocin—two primary hormones associated with euphoric feelings of early love—to fade in a romantic relationship over time. If you’re looking to regain some of that initial excitement in your partnership, you might try breaking out of your routine to explore new activities and experiences with your partner. A sense of novelty can be a predominant factor in reviving some of the excitement in a relationship.
Is dopamine our love neurotransmitter and it makes us feel good?
The body and brain has a marvelous and sometimes strange assortment of chemicals that are released based on different emotions and experiences. These hormones control our feelings in some ways. Dopamine is one such neurotransmitter that is associated with the brain’s reward center. It can cause temporary feelings of pleasure and euphoria and is often linked to the experience of romantic love.
Is dopamine responsible for liking?
In many cases, the brain releases dopamine in the early stages of a romantic relationship, causing a person to feel euphoric and excited. While initially liking a person generally comes first, the human body releasing this type of hormone—along with oxytocin, “the love hormone,”—could intensify one’s feelings. The intensity of the feelings that this chemical can contribute to generally fade naturally over time in long-term relationships.
Does dopamine cause attraction?
Dopamine generally doesn’t cause attraction, as initially feeling drawn toward a person—whether they’re a date, a neighbor, a coworker, or an old high school acquaintance—usually comes first. This process, however, can then result in a release of dopamine that generally causes pleasurable feelings. The brain plays out this mechanism in order to acquire rewards, i.e., those pleasant feelings.
Does low dopamine affect love?
When a person first starts feeling love toward another, they tend to experience a spike in dopamine levels. These can be associated with romantic feelings, sexual arousal and a desire for sexual activity, and/or a desire to spend more time with the person. Over time, however, this spike of dopamine will eventually drop and return to normal, lower levels. While some people may realize at this stage that they are no longer interested in the object of their original affections, many others may experience a shift in their feelings toward a more stable, lasting type of love and care.
Does talking to someone you love release dopamine?
The early stages of feeling or exploring an attraction to someone can trigger the release of dopamine, a feel-good chemical that many people associate with defining love, romantic attraction, and/or sexual attraction. It can be responsible for painting quite the rosy picture of the object of your affection and helping you avoid negative emotions in some ways while you feel infatuated with this person—be they a coworker, friend, a high school acquaintance, or a new partner.
Is dopamine tied to happiness?
Dopamine is tied to the brain’s reward center and, therefore, to short-term feelings of pleasure and euphoria. So initially, a spike in dopamine may feel like happiness. However, this chemical won’t remain at such elevated levels forever, so relying on it as a source of happiness may not be reasonable.
How does dopamine affect behavior?
Dopamine can make a person feel pleasantly euphoric, which could lead them to behave with positivity and excitement. When associated with romantic love in particular, it could also lead them to engage in short-term behaviors related to this feeling that immediate family or friends may notice, such as temporarily eating less, having trouble settling down, having nothing but a rosy picture of the object of their affection in their mind, and feeling nervous or excited.
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