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Neurotransmitters: The Real Reason We 'Fall In Love'

The Myth of The Perfect Partner

Before neuroscientists began running experiments in order to discover the roots of attraction and love, the fairy tale ideal and living ‘happily ever after’ reigned supreme in the minds of the uniformed.

To this day, many people still expect their closest relationships, especially their spouses, to provide love, support, guidance, understanding, and a number of other things that are ultimately too much for a single person to handle.

Due to these exaggerated expectations, disappointment is inevitable and, instead of working through the necessary relationship issues, people opt to divorce or break-up in order to find the ‘right one’: that perfect soul mate; the one who will personify our perfect portrait of a partner.

The Divorce Epidemic

Unfortunately, this lofty ideal is not only expected of a partner, but demanded, also.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the divorce rates continue to skyrocket from 23.1% in 1950 (385,144 divorces out of 1,667,231 marriages) to 40.7% in 2000 (944,000 divorces out of 2,315,000 marriages), and now they hover around 50%.

Notice how the ratio of divorce is climbing even while the number of annual marriages is increasing!

How can we fix this problem, or at least come to a better understanding about why this divorce epidemic has ravaged our country and broken many homes?

It's NOT Your Fault

I have good news: it’s not your fault!

Disregard how many Hollywood movies and the advertisements of society perpetuate the ‘happily ever after’ fairy tale myth of successful relationships. That's not the issue.

Instead, your biology is the primary force that clouds your judgment.

In other words: We are wired to fall ‘in love’ and view our partners as perfect.

The results of many recent scientific experiments illustrate the precise chemicals that direct the process of love from when two people meet to years after marriage.

Culprit #1: Dopamine

In one study, neuroscientists determined the roots of attraction and passion by scanning several male subjects in an fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) machine (Ferris, 2008).

Each participant was shown various pictures of women. They ranged both from unattractive to attractive and they could either be looking into his eyes or diverting their gaze.

The results illustrated that the male brain inevitability released dopamine, a neurotransmitter specifically designed to deliver pleasure, only when he viewed the pictured woman, apparently locking eyes with him, attractive.

*If she was looking away or if he found her unappealing, the brain failed to release any dopamine.*

Later research expounding on the significant role dopamine plays in arousal, concluded that it activates the reward centers of the brain and amplifies the effects of sex hormones when the two chemicals are released simultaneously (Aron et al., 2008).

These results indicate the powerful neurological impact that meeting an attractive mate can have, even at first sight.

Culprit #2: Adrenaline

Another study indicated the connection between internal chemical processes and the formation of relationships. Researchers Dutton and Aron placed young men on either a seemingly unsafe suspension bridge or on another, completely stable, barely elevated bridge. The experiment recorded the men's reactions to an interview done by the same attractive research assistant while on their particular bridge (Dutton & Aron, 1974).

Their findings were intriguing:

  • While men on the precarious bridge found her either wildly attractive or repulsive, the men on the safe bridge had only moderate reactions to her beauty.
  • Only the men on the precarious bridge found her attractive to such an extent that they would call her later at her house to ask for a date.

Keep in mind that this is the same woman in both scenarios!

Dutton and Aron concluded that adrenaline, the chemical responsible for a person's fight-or-flight response, must have fueled this enhanced reaction.

Culprit #3: Circumstance and/or Mood

In 1981, White et al. confirmed the theory of circumstances, which directly relates to adrenaline, through an ingenious experiment that had men view a video of either an attractive or an unattractive woman after listening to one of three tapes.

Whereas the “negatively arousing tape” described the coldhearted murder of a missionary in plain sight of his family, the positively arousing tape played a recording of Steve Martin's comedy album, A Wild and Crazy Guy. The third recording was “neutral,” merely describing the circulatory system of a frog.

The researchers found that simply experiencing either happiness from the positively arousing tape or disgust from the negatively arousing tape before watching the video produced stronger reactions in the men than when they had no emotional stimulation from the neutral tape.

In other words, the appealing woman was even more appealing and the unappealing woman, even less so, compared to when these men listened to the neutral tape.

These findings provide insight into both how biology influences people's initial judgments of potential mates and the determining effect that these powerful chemicals have on the future of the relationship.

Culprit #4: Opioids

Certain chemicals can legitimately alter a person's reality to the point that they experience the same type of delusions that a person on drugs would.

Even though endogenous opioid peptides (opioids) primarily regulate food intake and determine various other essential lifestyle choices through a reward feedback loop (Gosnell & Levine, 2009), they play a critical role in relationship formation.

A landmark study done at University College London in 2000 found intriguing patterns of opioid release in 17 couples self-reported to be “truly, madly and deeply” in love.

During the fMRI scans, the participants would gaze at a neutral screen as 36 pictures appeared one-by-one for 17.36 seconds each. These pictures displayed the face of either that particular subject's beloved or one of three of the subject's closest friends that were of a similar age to the beloved. Additionally, as an added control, the researchers ensured that these friendships had lasted at least as long as the loving relationship.

The Startling Results

The results illustrated activation in two important areas only upon seeing a picture of the beloved: the insula and the anterior cingulate cortex, which, notably, are completely remote from the parts of the brain responsible for vision.

The typical role of the left insula, which exhibited the highest degree of activation out of the entire insula, is to attach an emotional response to visual input, especially when related to feelings of attraction and arousal.

The anterior cingulate cortex, on the other hand, regulates happiness and interprets the emotional states of others.

After assessing the data, the researchers noted, “Studies of cocaine and mu-opioid agonist-induced euphoria have shown increased activity in foci that seem to overlap with all foci activated in our study: the anterior cingulate cortex, the insula, the caudate nucleus and the putamen.”

In other words, love is a drug potentially more potent and addictive than cocaine.

Therefore, spending time with a partner can be equated to taking a hit and not seeing a partner for a while can lead to feelings of withdrawal and depression.

In fact, other studies have shown that sadness and depression are cured through the artificial deactivation of the right prefrontal cortex, which naturally occurs around a loved one (Menkes et al., 1999).

Thus, people 'in love' are merely in a chemically altered, but ultimately preferable, state that becomes quickly associated with the presence, and picture, of their loved ones.

Culprit #5: Oxytocin

Another distinct set of experiments discovered the neurological basis for how humans form and manage social bonds through the chemical oxytocin.

The functions of oxytocin are numerous, but specifically social:

  • High levels facilitate social behaviors, such as eye contact and social cognition (Meyer-Lindenberg et al., 2011)
  • People trust strangers to a larger degree when flooded with extra oxytocin (Theodoridou et al., 2009)
  • Its presence forms and finalizes the parent-child bond (Carter and Porges, 2013)

As a type of “social glue,” oxytocin gets released most often in the following ways:

  • Cuddling, hugging, and all sexual contact stimulate the release of oxytocin, thereby strengthening the relationship (Hill et al., 2009)
  • A large amount is produced after orgasm. This both creates a substantial calming effect and greatly intensifies a person’s feelings for his/her partner (Carter and Porges, 2013)
  • People automatically release oxytocin when they see an infant, triggering an inbuilt need to protect it (Ibid)

The Culprits

  • #1: Dopamine
  • #2: Adrenaline
  • #3: Mood & Circumstances
  • #4: Opioids
  • #5: Oxytocin

Takeaways

  • The process of 'falling in love' is not some abstract, coincidental occurrence. Instead, it's more accurately described as a gradual chemical change in a person's body.
  • The release of adrenaline, dopamine, and sex hormones begins at first sight for most people when they initially spot an attractive mate who seems to reciprocate interest. If you want to make sure that you will pursue the men/women you find attractive, then lead a more exciting lifestyle and take more chances!
  • As the relationship progresses beyond introductions, people spend more time together, and sexual contact in any form starts to happen, the neurological chemicals change to ones that are exponentially more potent and addictive, namely oxytocin and opioids.
  • Whereas oxytocin typically facilitates peaceful social relationships, with enhanced feelings of well-being and openness to others, opioids regulate behaviors that the body prefers to perform automatically, such as when and what to eat.
  • As people associate oxytocin to their lover, they have less symptoms of depression, they are more accepting, and their overall feeling of contentedness with life increases dramatically. Remember that oxytocin gets released with physical contact, especially when it's sexual, so stay close to your partner and make sure you two are touching each other in sexual and non-sexual ways very often!
  • Evolutionarily, this oxytocin-induced aspect of a relationship is extremely important, especially for men, because they both need to disregard their partner's flaws and feel content with their partner to such an extent that they see any alternatives as less attractive, so that when the couple decides to have a baby, both partners will stay committed.
  • Opioids play a large role in this commitment, also. They act on the body in a way analogous to that of drugs, creating a literal addiction to one's partner. These powerful self-produced narcotics have the capacity to completely alter reality for the recipient in the same way that cocaine would. So, be sure to balance your affection with reality! Think twice if you run into a situation that seems 'too good to be true,' your mind may be playing tricks on you!

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