When most people think of love, they think of the heart. Valentine's Day cards, heart-shaped candy boxes, romantic songs-they all focus on what's beating in our chests. But there's another organ that is directly associated with the experience of love: the brain. Dopamine plays a key role in this process, along with other neurotransmitters. Dopamine is the primary neurochemical responsible for the experiences of attraction, love, and desire.
What Is Dopamine?
Dopamine is one type of neurotransmitter that is widely utilized across different areas of the brain. Dopamine is associated with a feeling of pleasure, motivation, and reward, as well as regulating movement. Activities that trigger a rush of dopamine causes the brain to assign importance to them and to pursue more of the same.
Dopamine release controls what has become known as the "reward system" in the brain. This series of processes is linked to multiple areas of the brain that process emotion, direct focus, and seek rewards. All kinds of stimuli cause the release of dopamine in the reward pathways in various amounts, including food, sex, video games, social interactions, and shopping. Dopamine can be thought of as the neurochemical of desire.
What Does Dopamine Have to Do with Love?
Love may be associated with the heart, but it blooms in the brain. When we experience love, especially early on, the brain releases high amounts of dopamine. Love has an addictive quality, as anyone who has experienced it can attest. The euphoric feeling of dopamine release causes a high that has been compared to that of cocaine. In one study, functional MRI scans were performed on people who viewed pictures of their romantic partners. Multiple areas of the brain were shown to become flooded with dopamine.
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 warm up. 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
Since dopamine motivates us to chase things that we find rewarding, it plays a main role in attraction. The continuation of our species depends on our ability to reproduce, and even if we don't want children or aren't ready to have them, our biology still drives us to find a mate.
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.
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 hijacked by every new opportunity. One study showed that activity increased in the nucleus accumbens, a part of the brain integral to the reward system when participants viewed images of attractive people.
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.
Dopamine in Early Relationships
Dopamine is at an all-time high when we're first pursuing a relationship with someone who we're very interested in. This high level of dopamine makes new love feel extremely rewarding, exciting, and worth pursuing over other things. There is nothing that quite feels like our first serious love, especially if that love is returned. You may feel like you've found your soul mate like there's a connection between the two of you is like nothing else.
There's nothing wrong with these feelings. 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. Others may feel distraught if they don't feel the same rush that they once did and end a relationship prematurely. However, it's normal for the fires of passion to cool off as a relationship matures, 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. Other neurochemicals related to long-term attachment are released instead, the most notable one being oxytocin. Oxytocin is the same chemical involved in the connection between mothers and infants, as it facilitates bonding and security. Known as the "bonding hormone" or the "cuddle chemical," oxytocin is released through many activities, including holding hands and hugging.
Oxytocin encourages 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.
What About When A Relationship Ends?
The end of a relationship is 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 due to the strong bonds that form in the brain. When a relationship ends, especially if the other party ends it, the brain's level of dopamine and serotonin are temporarily lowered. In addition, stress hormones are raised, as the brain tries to restore what was lost.
The neural pathways that were laid down 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 is able to restore normative functioning. Therapy can help escalate this process for individuals who may be struggling to recover after the end of a relationship.
The Reason Why '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 you reproducing.
That's why people tend to look at their new love interest through a near-perfect lens. You've probably had the experience of looking back at a former crush many months or years down the road and wondering what you saw in 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, 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 get released. Because of the brain's neuroplasticity, an association is formed between that pain and the release of the euphoric endorphins.
That's 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 wears off, sustaining a relationship with someone we love takes more work and effort. While the initial neurochemical flood bonded you together, it's up to you and your partner to decide if your relationship is worth building into the future. A relationship should be viewed as a partnership with an even give-and-take between both people.
A successful relationship takes to communicate, support, and compromise and requires both partners working together to achieve this goal. Falling in love doesn't 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.
Therapy for Couples
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.
However, the opposite is true-it's always better to face the problem than to ignore it and allow it to build. 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.
BetterHelp offers online therapy that can help you learn effective communication skills and better ways to relate to your partner.