EASTON, Md., February 12, 2012 – You know the feeling: the ecstatic highs, the bottomless lows, the racing pulse, the queasy stomach. All signs not of the flu, but love. And the more you feel it, the more you want it.
Someone has charmed you, casting you under a spell so potent that you feel bewitched. In another time, you probably would have screamed deliriously, happily, that the object of your affections had to be a witch slipping you love potions to seduce you heart and soul, but not so loudly that the Inquisition would throw your sweetheart into a dungeon and break open the Iron Maiden. This was love after all.
Turns out that love is a powerful drug, one served to you not by the object of your affection but by your very own brain that goes into its little interior lab, concocting an intoxicating brew that you can’t resist nor do you want to. Some scientist say the mixture is so intense that it rivals cocaine in its addictive qualities. Quite simply it’s called falling in love.
Scientists are finding that love triggers the same euphoria that using cocaine does by increasing dopamine, a primary neurotransmitter that affects mood, reward, and motivation.
Just looking at the picture of the object of your affection can stop pain as successfully as a potent painkiller, according to a Stanford University study. In fact, brain scans of the subjects showed that seeing the image of their love interest stimulated activity in the parts of the brain that are also activated by cocaine and morphine.
Why Do We Fall in Love?
Back in 2004, Professor Helen Fisher, an anthropologist at Rutgers University, published a widely respected book on the phenomenon of love and the brain called “Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love.” She found that indeed love does manufacture a glorious chemical cocktail of four compounds inside our brains that produces what we define as love: dopamine, norepinephrine, serotonin, and oxytocin.
The results can be myriad, from the fool in love, the tragic lover, the pining lover to the rapturous lover, ala Gene Kelly in “Singing In the Rain.” And at some point, we can even become all four. Romantic love is pure exhilaration, a roller coaster of thrills, overriding such basic drives as hunger, thirst or sleep. How many sleepless nights has passion caused all of us at some point or other? Yet we still continue to crave it.
Scientific American reviewed Fisher’s book, saying: “Most people think of romantic love as a feeling. Fisher, however, views it as a drive so powerful that it can override other drives…. While emphasizing the complex and subtle interplay among multiple brain chemicals, Fisher argues convincingly that dopamine deserves center stage.”
Fisher conducted MRIs of people in love, both new and long committed couples, and found “This little factory near the base of the brain is sending dopamine to higher regions. It creates craving, motivation, goal-oriented behavior—and ecstasy.”
It is the dopamine that makes you addicted to your new-found love, focusing on him or her with laser intensity and telling you to keep repeating the unique experience. That’s why the first time together should be special, something as simple as a horseback ride along the beach or more extravagant as a helicopter ride over New York City. Dopamine will compel you to keep repeating the high of that experience in different ways.
Crazy in Love: Will It Last?
But norepinephrine is also needed, an important ingredient in making you crazy in love. A stimulant, it will boost your energy level, making you think you can do anything in the world you want. But it will also give you sleepless nights, feelings of elation, loss of appetite, and even stomach butterflies. And still we are addicted to love.
Fisher also notes that doses of serotonin, a neurochemical, that normally gives us a feeling of tranquility and peace decreases, leaving us jittery, anxious, almost obsessive. Sounds just like how the we feel at the beginning of love, doesn’t it? Yet we are hooked.
But to sustain the relationship, oxytocin must come into play as well. It’s the drug that makes us feel all warm and fuzzy about our true love. It surfaces when we hug our kids, when mothers nurse their babies, and when we have sex. Oxytocin bonds us to the other person. People who are in long-term relationships that are deep, committed, and comfortable have that connection. And with time as the first throes of love calms down, oxytocin can cement that relationship to an enduring one.
Love can be as rewarding and deep as our chemical factories allow it to be. But it still takes that first spark to ignite the flames of love before the chemistry of love takes hold. Then it is up to us not to let the fire die out, but to keep it going through the long night called life. Then, lucky you, you have true love.
Happy Valentine’s Day, one and all.
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