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  • Writer's picturePaula Argudo

Love On The Brain: The Role Of Hormones and Neurotransmitters In Attraction

The process of falling in love seems to be a mystery troubling both poets and scientists. Like any human interaction, its meaning and development varies among groups and individuals. It is, overall, experienced globally, but its process is highly context dependent as well. Which part of the process does everyone go through? When it comes to romantic love, research suggests that hormones and neurotransmitters can be partially responsible for such a complex construct.


Defining Love

Romantic love can be explored through various perspectives. Usually, it includes concepts such as attraction, tenderness, bonding, attachment, and lust. Different researchers describe love as:

  • “A collection of activities associated with the acquisition and retention of emotions needed to survive and reproduce” - Krishna G. Seshadri, 2016

  • A series of evolutionary adaptations with reproduction-related functions, which seems to be a universal experience (Buss, 2019).

  • Psychologist Robert Sternberg further described love with his “triangular theory”, which involves the three main components of intimacy (physical closeness), passion (drive), and commitment (decision) (APA, n.d.).


Role Of Chemical Substances

Both hormones and neurotransmitters are chemicals inside the body that carry messages, signal reactions, and regulate activities and emotions. Hormones are produced, secreted, and directed through the endocrine system. Since they are released through the bloodstream to reach specific target cells, they work slowly yet their effect lasts longer (Dušková, Stárka, 2020). Meanwhile, neurotransmitters are released from one neuron’s presynaptic nerve, then transfer information along the synaptic cleft to reach the next neuron’s receptors. Moving through a minuscule distance, they have a quick effect that wears off (Purves et al. 2001). Since they act as chemical messengers, they are essential for human interaction, and therefore they are present during different stages of falling in love.


Early Stages – Crushing

The first phases of falling in love include behaviours related with stress and alertness. Important hormones and neurotransmitters include:

  • Cortisol: the levels of this hormone on the bloodstream of people who have recently fallen in love are high. Cortisol triggers the flight or fight response, that might indicate a response to facing attraction as a change or challenge (Marazziti, Canale, 2004)

  • Norepinephrine: sensations such as raised heartbeat and loss of appetite correlate with this neurotransmitter, which is also involved in stress reactions. Specifically, it raises attention and helps people focus on a particular task (Seshadri, 2016).


Reproductive Hormones

Due to love’s development as a mechanism for reproduction, testosterone and oestrogen are essential for the process. They are responsible for mediating the sex drive, which also helps people recognize possible partners. They influence attachment and preference for a partner under both genetic and environmental characteristics (Carter, 1998).


Love As A Reward

Biological anthropologist Dr Helen Fisher has studied love during its different stages for decades. During her studies, Fisher and her team noted (through fMRI scans) intense activity in the ventral tegmental area of the brain when people were shown a picture of their partners or ex-partners. The VTA is an ancestral, dopamine-rich area of the brain. Dopamine can work both as a hormone and a neurotransmitter to stimulate craving and motivate people to pursue a goal, which in this case refers to selecting a partner. This is part of the brain’s reward system that characterises romantic love: it builds the impulse to search for a single partner (Fisher et al. 2016).


Honourable Mentions

Other chemicals that have been found to have a correlation with this process are:

  • Oxytocin: could be activated with positive social interactions, relieves stress. Is particularly high after warm contact (Grewen et al. 2005).

  • Serotonin: creates a feeling of comfort and well-being. Can be suppressed during early stages but it is further produced during long-term relationships. Research suggests that women tend to produce more serotonin than men (Marazziti, Cassano, Akiskal, 1999) (Langeslag, Fekkes, Veen, 2012).


Love in daily life 

Even though hormones and neurotransmitters play a significant role in love, the interactions between them and the behaviours they lead to in people are variable. They are constantly interacting with cognitive and socio-cultural aspects of psychology. At a biological level, the same tools build love, but everyone experiences it differently. In her book Why Him? Why Her? Helen Fisher explains that there are four overarching personalities when it comes to love, stemming from the varying levels of each main hormone or neurotransmitter. It might be a generalised approach, but it could be a valuable starting point for people to better understand love.


“Love is in us. It’s deeply embedded in the brain. Our challenge is to understand each other.” Helen Fisher, 2008.


Bibliography:

  • American Psychlogical Association. (n.d.). triangular theory of love. APA Dictionary of Psychology. https://dictionary.apa.org/triangular-theory-of-love

  • Buss, D. (2018, August 16). The Evolution of Love in Humans. In R.J Stenberg & K. Sternberg (Eds). The New Psychology of Love (pp 42-59). Cambridge University Press. 10.1017/9781108658225.004

  • Carter, S. (1998, November). NEUROENDOCRINE PERSPECTIVES ON SOCIAL ATTACHMENT AND LOVE. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 23 (8), 779-818. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0306453098000559

  • Dušková, L. Stárka, M. (2020, September 1). What is a Hormone? Psychological Research, 69, 2. 10.33549/physiolres.934509

  • Fisher, H. Xu, X. Aron, A. Brown, L. (2016, May 10). Intense, Passionate, Romantic Love: A Natural Addiction? How the Fields That Investigate Romance and Substance Abuse Can Inform Each Other. Frontiers in Psychology, 7, 687. 10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00687

  • Grewen, K. Girdler, S. Amico, J. Light, K. (2005, July). Effects of Partner Support on Resting Oxytocin, Cortisol, Norepinephrine, and Blood Pressure Before and After Warm Partner Contact. Psychosomatic Medicine, 67(4), 531-8. 10.1097/01.psy.0000170341.88395.47

  • Marazziti, D. Canale, D. (2004, August). Hormonal changes when falling in love. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 29(7), 931-936. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0306453003001616

  • Langeslag, S. Fekkes, D. Veen, F (2012, January). Blood Levels of Serotonin Are Differentially Affected by Romantic Love in Men and Women. Journal of Psychophysiology, 26(2), 92-98. 10.1027/0269-8803/a000071

  • Purves, D. Augustine, GJ. Fitzpatrick, D. Katz, L. LaMantia, S. McNamara, J. Williams, M. (2001). What defines a Neurotransmitter? In Neuroscience. Sinauer Associates. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK10957/

  • Seshadri, K. (2016). The neuroendocrinology of love. Indian Journal of Endocrinology and Metabolism 67(4), 531-8. 10.4103/2230-8210.183479

  • TED. (2008, July 15). The brain in love | Helen Fisher [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OYfoGTIG7pY

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