Love is often defined as an emotive sensory experience and feeling. It is one that is frequently sensationalised by the media, television, movies and even science. It is an emotion that takes many shapes and forms. Love can be romantic, companionate, maternal and paternal. It can be ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’, logical and sensible, or entirely irrational and unpredictable. Love is an emotion most commonly associated with the heart, and it’s no wonder when it’s deemed the cause of heart-fluttering palpitations and thudding, sweaty palms, stammering, stuttering, and even clumsiness. However, as science will indicate it’s not the heart that’s to blame but rather the brain. Dr. Helen Fisher; biological anthropologist, author of The Anatomy of Love and well-known ‘love’ expert explores the reasoning behind “why we love?”, and in particular nature and chemical configuration of romantic love.
Dr. Fisher and a team of scientists at Rutgers University have determined that love can be broken down into three categories, namely: lust, attraction and attachment. Each of the three categories is characterised by the hormones that are produced during each stage. Lust unsurprisingly is linked to two very powerful sex hormones (oestrogen & testosterone) that act as important activators in the body. Lust at its core is “driven by the desire for sexual gratification”. It is a fundamental evolutionary driving force in our need to reproduce, a biological necessity in order to continue our gene pool lineage. The part of the brain responsible for instigating the release of these hormones is the hypothalamus. Both oestrogen and testosterone as are essential in creating sexual motivation as well as the desire to act on it.
While the hormones connected to each stage may overlap somewhat in their sentiment sensations, the attraction stage is a distinctive one. According to Dr. Fisher, the hormones associated with attraction are dopamine and serotonin. Dopamine is your ‘feel-good’ hormone that is released when we do things that make us feel good and is largely supplementary to the production of norepinephrine. Both are responsible for feelings of giddy excitement and anticipation and can make us feel like we are ‘in-love’. Whilst attraction increases the production of dopamine and norepinephrine (the ‘fight or flight’ hormone), it also leads to a decrease in serotonin: which is seen as a hormone that largely contributes to a feeling of overall happiness.
Lastly, if Fisher’s composition of love is to be followed, comes attachment – the glue that holds most relationships together and ultimately ensures their longevity long after the synapses have stopped firing on all cylinders. Attachment, unlike lust and attraction, is not unique or limited to relationships that are more romantically inclined – but rather any relationship where an emotional bond is formed. The two hormones associated with the attraction phase are oxytocin and vasopressin. Oxytocin is seen as the ‘love’ hormone as it is usually released during intimate activities such a sex, hugging, childbirth, and breastfeeding. This hormone encourages emotional bonding across the relationship spectrum.
Even though it appears that the science behind love can be succinctly categorised into three stages with three sets of accompanying hormones, it is certainly not an exact science – and often requires the perfect storm of all of the above. While the hormones coupled to each stage have some great benefits and can result in a romcom-esque, head over heels romance, the opposite is also true. But the good news is that while Cupid’s bow and arrow might not always be available, at least we now have a better understanding of the science behind this crazy little thing called love.