This Friday is Valentine’s Day, a day to celebrate the mystery that is romantic love. But as our knowledge of the brain increases, the mystery of what happens when we fall in love is falling away. We know now that the obsessive, happy feelings of falling in love are due to changes in chemicals called neurotransmitters in the the brain.
In the video below, from the American Chemical Society, psychologist Abigail Marsh from Georgetown University describes the process: “Some of the reason that love feels good is because a lot of the feel-good hormones are involved. Dopamine is the reward-seeking — energized, excited — neurotransmitter in the striatum that is definitely involved in feeling in love.”
“The hormone that is most specific to feeling in love, that is most specific to the social response, is oxytocin. And a closely related neuropeptide called vasopressin,” she says.
These hormones work in the brain to make us feel good. For example, in the monogamous, mates-for-life prairie voles, the act of mating releases a ton of oxytocin and dopamine. Like other reactions that cause a large dopamine release — like cocaine — that action of being with that specific mate is then regarded as “rewarding.”
“Our best guess is that humans are probably built similarly,” Marsh says. “People who excite romantic feelings in us probably also trigger increases in oxytocin, which results in this increase in dopamine when you find that person that you want to stick with.”
There’s still a little mystery to the process, though. What sets off these love feelings — who you fall in love with — differs from person to person. How this chemical avalanche is triggered, we don’t know.
Hear more about love and prairie voles and drugs from Marsh in this week’s Reactions video:
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