What Happens to Your Brain When You’re in Love?


People say love is like an addiction. According to some neuroscientists, they’re right! Romantic love can release so many happy-go-lucky neurotransmitters into your bloodstream that the effects can outdo some drugs. Here’s what happens in your brain when you stick with that special someone.

In the beginning….

When you have butterflies in your stomach from meeting someone new, dopamine levels surge. All that dopamine gives you an extra thrill when you see your newly beloved, creating an intense craving to be around them. A neurotrophin called nerve growth factor accompanies all this euphoria and increases your emotional dependency. Lastly, serotonin levels drop, which cranks up the dial for desire. This chemical cocktail is why lovestruck couples can be so infatuated with each other. Studies show that the chemical concentrations brewing inside the brains of newly minted lovebirds are similar to those who suffer from OCD.

Is it love or is it lust?

Romantic love is driven largely by the emotional center of the brain, the limbic system. Meanwhile, lust is controlled by the endocrine system. Parts of the hypothalamus prime the body for sex while steroid hormones amp up sexual desire. But don’t dismiss lust as some primitive carnal instinct. When you’re lusting for someone, your brain does a heavy load of subconscious work. In one study, people were shown pictures of good-looking people and asked whether they found them attractive or not. It took them significantly longer to give a piece of eye candy the “okay.” To no one’s surprise, the extrastriate area of the brain—which we use to judge someone else’s body—was active. But the brain’s temporo-parietal junction also lit up, which is interesting, because that part of the brain is important for understanding your own body image. It seems that when you’re lusting, you’re not just judging someone else—you’re judging yourself.

As the relationship solidifies…

As the relationship wears on, lovebirds become less obsessive. The bonding phase begins. The raphe nuclei start producing more serotonin, while, within a year, nerve growth factor levels usually return to normal. Things may feel less exciting, but the rise in serotonin helps produce a trusting, less needy attachment that primes couples for a long-term relationship. Oxytocin—the hormone that floods your brain during an orgasm—helps curb obsession even more and helps make things more stable. (Oxytocin, by the way, is the same hormone that makes maternal bonds so strong.)

Years into love…

The longer a relationship lasts, the less dopamine is released. But that doesn’t mean the bond is dying. In fact, a molecule called CRF (corticotrophin-releasing factor) helps keep couples together. CRF is released whenever couples are separated; it creates an unpleasant feeling that makes them miss each other. In men, a molecule called vasopressin also increases. Vasopressin is linked to territorial behavior, and it may explain why, in healthy relationships, men feel loyal and protective of their partners (while in unhealthy relationships, they’re possessive). Vasopressin also promotes fidelity. When scientists inhibited vasopressin receptors in prairie voles, the usually faithful animals became rampant cheaters. 

What are some advantages of love?

For one, it makes you think smarter and faster. In one study, participants stared at a computer as names flashed across the screen (but flashed so quickly that they couldn’t consciously recognize them). When the name of their loved one appeared, their ability to perform demanding cognitive tasks improved significantly. Scientists believe that’s because love activates the brain’s dopamine system—a system that’s been shown to boost cognitive and motor skills.

See how your brain reacts to love and all the other astonishing things that go on in that noggin of yours. Tune in to Brain Games tonight at 9/8c on the National Geographic Channel.

What Makes Our Brains Feel Trust?

Trust is part of your brain’s default setting, but the feeling may not be as noble as your teachers made it out to be. Neuroscience has an explanation that relies on a lot of fascinating biochemistry.

In one study, scientists asked 49 participants to play a two-person game of trust. One participant had to act as a broker while the other worked as a trustee. Working together, the two built up a pot of money by investing in each other. But to amp up the risk—and the trust—there was one major caveat: One of the participants could steal all of the money at any moment.

Before playing the game, some of the participants snorted a nasal spray laced with oxytocin. Best known for being the “love hormone,” the scientists suspected that oxytocin also had a hand in making us trustworthy. It seems they were right. Participants who sniffed the oxytocin spray ended up investing more money than those who had inhaled a placebo. It seems the burst of oxytocin had increased their trust.

But the takeaway isn’t so warm and fuzzy. As participants trusted each other more and more, a brain area called the caudate nucleus—one of the brain’s pleasure centers—lit up. As their trust solidified, the caudate became active earlier and earlier. That is, they started taking the benefits for each investment for granted. The researchers concluded that we don’t trust people because it’s some universal moral force. We trust people because it rewards one of the brain’s pleasure-seeking centers. Our brain simply likes getting that oxytocin-laced caudate kick.  

Trust us. You'll want to tune in to Brain Games Mondays at 9/8c on the National Geographic Channel to discover all the astonishing things your brain can do.

Can Stress Be a Good Thing?

It’s an accepted fact that stress is bad for you. But don’t drown in all the hype. In some cases, a little bit of stress can be good for your brain.

Stress May Not Make You Sick

A study of a whopping 29,000 people found that stress isn’t really taking years off your life. Rather, the belief that stress is bad is the problem. Stress, they discovered, doesn’t kill you—your viewpoint does. The study found that people who believed stress is bad had a 43 percent increased risk of death. People who did not believe stress was bad were far less likely to die. So stress may not be making you sick. How you deal with it is.

Stress Helps You Learn

A 2013 study found that a boost of corticosterone (a stress hormone) may help neural stem cells grow in the hippocampus, the brain’s learning center. The team discovered that stressful events could improve the mental performance of rats. From a survival standpoint, that makes sense. In the animal world, remembering a stressful event can help a critter avoid similar, life-threatening events in the future.

Stress Saves Your DNA and RNA

A little dose of stress tells your body to dial up antioxidants to fight free radicals, those pesky molecules that make us age. Ends up, with all that help, acute stress can help reduce damage to your body’s DNA and RNA. (Chronic stress, though, does the opposite. So don’t stress too much.)

Stress Boosts Your Immune System

Although chronic stress wreaks havoc on your immune system, an acute “fight or flight” stress attack can stimulate your immune system, making it more responsive. (Your body’s stress response, after all, is there to save you—not make you sick.) One study on rats found that moderate stress makes immune cells more aggressive.

Stress Can Be Alleviated With Charity

Of course, it’s still a good idea to avoid stress. But if you can’t, remedy it by donating to charity. A study of 850 people found that your risk of death increases 30 percent after a major stressful event, like the loss of a loved one. But there’s a treatment: People who helped others—especially by giving—practically eliminated that risk.

Learn more about the inner workings of that beautiful machine between your ears! Tune in to Brain Games Mondays at 9/8c on the National Geographic Channel.


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