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February 11, 2015

Why we’re addicted to falling in love

By Dr. Rebekah Thomas

“Romantic love” is the phrase humans use to describe feelings and emotions associated with a person to whom one feels both attracted to and passionate about. In some, it is associated with a racing heart, a sick stomach, a feeling of ecstasy, or that the other person can do no wrong.

Is there a biological basis for this? The answer to that is both yes and no.

Recently, scientists have discovered that for about 12 to 18 months, the brain of a person in love has reduced serotonin levels and serotonin receptors. For that same time period, hormones and other molecules related to the stress response are elevated. Reduced serotonin and serotonin receptors is also often associated with obsessive-compulsive disorder. The bottom line is that romantic love is stressful and can be likened to a compulsive/addictive or obsessive disorder … Interesting!

Something else recent research has shown is that when a person is “in love,” some parts of the brain are activated, while some parts show reduced activity. Increased activity occurs in parts of the dopamine reward system of the brain, most of which are activated in parental love. The hypothalamus shows increased activity in romantic love, but not in parental love, suggesting a sexual/physical attraction component for that part of the brain. Areas of the brain showing reduced activity include parts involved in analysis and judgment, the ability to predict ultimate outcomes of actions and events, the ability to delay gratification, and the ability to learn from our mistakes.

Biologically, romantic love seems to increase stress, produce addictive or obsessive types of behaviors, and diminishes our ability to avoid negative circumstances and to logically reason through the long-term consequences of our actions. However, research indicates that this, at least in part, is only temporary and that within 12 to 18 months, this will fade. What happens next is guesswork from a scientific point of view.

Dr. Rebekah Thomas describes the science behind falling in love and how our bodies react in response. Dr. Thomas is an associate professor of science. She teaches courses in the biological science.

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