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The biochemistry of love

Drunk on love? Thank dopamine, the love elixir. This hormone acts in the brain to create the feeling of euphoria when you first fall in love. Or blame dopamine, since it can also be responsible for feelings of hatred if a love goes sour.

Every true love story is divided into four biochemical stages, Colombian sexual medicine expert Dr Juan Fernando Uribe explained to Love Matters.

Chemical messengers like dopamine are responsible for the highs and lows of love. It’s the quality and quantity of these neurotransmitter molecules that makes love so powerful, Dr Uribe says.

From the moment your pulse quickens at the site of a crush to the years of bonding you share with a long-term partner, love runs a course through four biochemical phases: attraction, romantic love, attachment and true love.

Phase 1: Attraction

Have you ever had ‘butterflies in your stomach’? Ask anyone about a guy or girl they’ve been attracted to, says Dr. Uribe, and they’ll know exactly what you mean.

It’s the neurotransmitter phenylethylamine at work. When you’re attracted to someone, it can cause your stomach to churn and make you go weak in the knees.

Testosterone is the universal hormone of desire and the other neurotransmitter involved in this stage. In guys, girls and animals alike it’s responsible for sexual desire in response to attraction.

Attraction is instinctive, automatic and beyond our control since it takes place in primitive parts of the brain. It is activated by the senses – sight, hearing, smell and taste, usually in that order.

The pulses quickens, the pupils dilate, the mouth waters, the penis gets erect and the vagina gets wet. This is uncontrollable desire and in animals and humans it’s headed in one direction, sex. In people, this is passionate sex that’s full of desire, but lacking in euphoria and attachment, feelings which develop in later stages of love.

Phase 2: Romantic love

Infatuation with the guy or girl you’re attracted to happens when higher parts of the brain like the limbic system and more complex brain chemicals get involved, Dr Uribe explains.

You long to be with the person you can’t keep your eyes off because ultimately your goal is to reproduce with them. Thanks to dopamine, this guy or girl seems more beautiful, more desirable and free of flaws. In short, they appear to be perfect.

Love at this stage can cause people to lose their grip on reality. It’s powerful and fragile. And sometimes it fails. When romantic love doesn’t work out, dopamine can cause someone to hate their former lover as intensely as they were once infatuated by them.

Phase 3: Attachment

When the extreme highs and lows of romantic love grow into a stable relationship, the couple is in the attachment stage.

Stability and being able to make decisions characterise this stage of love because the neocortex, part of the brain involved in rational thought, enters the picture.

Pleasure hormones like endorphins increase during an orgasm and with affection. They are part of the link between sex and love that help ensure a couple stays happy together.

Orgasms and affection are also bound to love by the hormones oxytocin and vasopressin. Released during sex and in intimate moments, oxytocin in women and vasopressin in men strengthen the bond between a couple.

Phase 4: True love

Good or bad, beautiful or less-so, a couple in the stage Dr Uribe calls true love doesn’t care much about ethics or aesthetics.

Oxytocin continues to support this final stage of love that passes the test of time and can become a lifelong bond between a couple.

 

THE BRAIN CHEMICALS OF LOVE
AND WHAT THEY'RE RESPONSIBLE FOR:

Phenylethylamine (PEA)
- butterflies in your stomach
- ‘weak at the knees’ feeling
Dopamine
- ‘drunk on love’ feeling
- infatuation
- blindness to flaws
- bitterness after breakups
Testosterone
- sexual desire
Endorphins
- sexual pleasure
- linking sex to love
Oxytocin
- bonding
Vasopressin
- bonding (for men)


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