As living organisms, we experience a wide range of emotions. There are many different theoretical ways of exploring the significance of such emotions, and the implications they have in our lives. Such approaches may include evolutionary psychology, evolutionary anthropology, biology, and neuroscience, just to name a few. Love is a term we’ve ascribed to arguably one of the strongest human emotions. We all have the capacity to love and be loved, so is this elusive feeling an intrinsic characteristic, this love we feel so intensely? Let’s explore the biological basis of love to find out!
While it is true that we all have the ability to define love in our own way, there is certainly a universality to the descriptive term. For example, there are endless songs about love produced and released each year (month, or day for that matter). When we listen to these songs, the words so often feel like they are taken right from our mouths. The music resonates with us in a peculiar way, and we feel that the lyrics were written just for us! Is this further evidence that there is a biological component to love, such that the basic (or not so basic) physiological processes we undergo closely resemble each other?
In this discussion, I will be focusing on aspects of romantic love. For starters, let’s begin by broadly defining this elusive term: Love. Love, as defined by the online Oxford-English Dictionary is, “a deep romantic or sexual attachment to someone” (Definition 1.1). If I were to compare love, and the process of “falling in love” to something, it would be chemistry. Although this analogy may well be a far reach, I am going to liken love to chemistry (the academic study). In chem. labs, we come up with all kinds of cool concoctions, but the coolest sorts, the one’s that professors demonstrate for their students, are the ones that create a reaction. Love, I am arguing, is like a chemical reaction. We can throw all types of elements and substances into a test tube, but only the “perfect” combination will create a reaction that awes the intently gazing chemistry students!
The brain and body release a range of chemicals when we are “in love” and “falling in love.” I won’t get into too much detail, but after doing some preliminary research, I learned that such chemicals include: estrogen, testosterone, dopamine, norepinephrine, oxytocin, vasopressin, nerve growth factor and serotonin. I was fascinated to learn that chemically, the serotonin effects of being infatuated have a similar chemical appearance to obsessive-compulsive disorder. This stunned me, but now so many things make sense! One article adds, “By analyzing blood samples from the lovers, Dr. Marazitti discovered that serotonin levels of new lovers were equivalent to the low serotonin levels of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder patients” (youramazingbrain.org). What does this all mean? In another article, the evolutionary value of the three states of becoming attached to another is explored. These three states include the following: lust, romantic love, and stable attachment. In the article, this explanation is offered:
Love is an obsessive compulsion that probably evolved as a means for individuals to focus on specific other individuals with enough energy to ensure reproductive success, and possibly long term attachment, which would lead to better chances of survival for offspring. Because love is characterized by obsessive thoughts similar to depression and OCD, it begins to make sense only as an evolutionary strategy. Love is not chemically similar in some ways to stable happiness, but instead includes seemingly inefficient use of energy, as well as frequent disappointment. When seen as an evolutionary strategy to ensure production of offspring, love finally becomes a bit more logical, even if we remain ever susceptible to its emotional highs and lows (intro2psych.wordpress.com).
Clearly, there are endless ways to examine love as a human emotion. A wide range of theoretical approaches to answering the question of what love is will inevitably yield contrasting explanations. Regardless of whatever it is or however we define it, love seems to be a driving force of our lives, actions, and desires. It is possibly one of the most dangerous, exhilarating, frightening, and intoxicating [bio-] chemical reactions, all at once!
7 thoughts on “Synthesizing Love: A Chemical Reaction”
I find it fascinating that you see how the complex interplay of various hormones and neurotransmitters (I’d also like to suggest phenethylamine, nitric oxide and endogenous opioids here) contributes to our perception of the feeling of being in love. Due to the fact that falling in love and being in love undeniably affects our behavior in many ways, it must come down to an alteration of our biochemistry on some level. Love is an incredible emotion, yet we can distill it down to something as simple as activity in neural pathways.
If you are interested in the neurobiology of love, I’d suggest you check out more on the drug MDMA; MDMA causes the release of neurotransmitters and an alteration of our behavior very similar to what you were detailing above in your post. I would be curious to hear about a “love potion” study involving MDMA, or even better, behavioral experimentation on people in love being administered MDMA together.
If the serotonin effects of being in love and infatuated are similar to that of obsessive-compulsive disorder, I wonder how serotonin would appear in an individual who suffers from OCD when they are falling in love themselves. Falling in love was also said to be categorized by obsessive feelings present in depression. Would a depressed or OCD patient show exaggerated low levels of serotonin? How would this affect their condition?
It’s so interesting to think about how emotions such as love have measurable biochemical origins. The fact that our complex thoughts and feelings are driven by biological processes is fascinating! I like how you examined the evolutionary theory behind love, and drew the interesting comparison between love and OCD. It definitely makes you stop and think about the amazing complexity and capability of the brain!
After reading “Synthesizing Love: A Chemical Reaction” and watching the Youtube video it is clear the important role that neurotransmitters play in how we feel love. Both sources cited serotonin as one of the very important neurotransmitters along with dopamine, estrogen, and testosterone. These various neurotransmitters contribute to why we become so obsessed with love and fee the swelling sensation all over our bodies when we think about those we love. I find it interesting that serotonin resides predominantly in the gut contributing to our serious physical responses to love, like the butterflies that make us pleasantly nauseous as we fall in love. How do levels of serotonin alter as one continues to progress through a relationship? As one becomes more comfortable with a partner does serotonin continue to create butterflies or do other forms neurotransmitters act as better flags for long term love?
I think that the importance of hormones and neurotransmitters (and all the other chemicals that contribute to our feelings of love) are really interesting and even call to question whether or not humans are meant (evolutionarily) to mate for life. All the research seems to show that the hormones associated with different stages of love change over time (the butterflies go away, things get comfortable, we get the “snuggle hormone”, and all that jazz) and eventually seem to flag to the point of practically stopping. If love is all about the chemicals, then the simple fact that these chemicals flag and stop and change over time would indicate that we are supposed to move on from one mate and find another (beginning the cycle of hormones and love all over again), which is really contrary to our societal views. At the same time, however, lots of people (despite divorce rates being what they are!) stay together and live out their lives happily in love with one another. Clearly there’s more to love than just the chemicals, but what on earth could that be???
I really liked your choice to analyze the chemical basis of the emotion of love. Love is so prominent in all of our lives, as it pervades so many facets of life and also possesses the power to influence one’s life significantly. It’s interesting to then examine this emotion from a different perspective and to seek comprehension of its biological/ chemical basis.
I found it really fascinating that the serotonin activity of those in love strongly resembles the brains of people with obsession-compulsive disorder. I wonder if this serotonin activity remains this way over extended time periods of being in love, or if this only occurs in early stages of love so characterized by a sort of obsessive infatuation? Also, I liked the question raised by Katherine Bell: What would the serotonin levels look like of an individual with OCD who is experiencing the emotion of love? I wonder if the serotonin similarity would enable those with OCD to more easily experience emotions of love and maybe have false senses of being in love.
Lastly, I liked your analysis of love through an evolutionary perspective. I had never really thought about love in this way, however, it makes complete logical sense. Love can function to make people almost obsessively committed to another person, and this attachment ensures future reproductive success.
I find the topic of the chemical properties of love very interesting, especially as related to obsessive compulsion disorder. The commonalities between the two are fascinating but also understandable as those in love may often have “obsessive” thoughts about his or her significant other. The differentiation of chemical properties depending on the stage of love two people are in and its relation to divorce and weakening of feelings after the “honeymoon period” also makes practical sense. Overall, the complex relationships of neurotransmitters in the very relatable topic of love prompts further interest into how these chemicals relate to other human emotions.