William Shakespeare truly was a man ahead of his time. Quoting from the late playwright’s famous work, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind.”
This line illustrates quite well what recent studies have discovered in observing the relational aspects of love and the brain, finding love works at a much deeper level beyond cultural concepts; involving key brain circuitry.
“There’s been a real resurgence in understanding love at the level of neurochemistry and what’s happening in the brain,” says SLCC Associate Professor of Psychology Katerina Calderone Salini. “It’s always been of interest, but we’ve had a huge explosion in the last 15 years.”
Behavioral studies have shown that query upon the nature of love has perplexed the minds of many since the beginnings of civilization. More recently however, using empirical methods of research, psychologists have crossed the controversial divide between heart and head.
Though the definition of love seems singular, psychologists do not define love as one thing, but use the subject to describe the many facets upon which it exists.
“There’s the love between friends, the love between parents and children, and the love between lovers,” says Salini. “And even in love between lovers, [psychologists] talk about different kinds [of love].”
Certain kinds of love, like that of companionate love, which Salini describes is based on mutual support and care, influence health in positive ways.
“[Companionate] love over the long term is associated with better psychological health and better physical health,” says Salini.
Other kinds of love, however, when taking a turn for the worst, may influence mental illness as well as physical pain.
Neurochemical research explains that hormones including dopamine, serotonin, epinephrine and norepinephrine are triggered when feelings of love are experienced.
“The release of [dopamine] neurotransmitters in the brain with passionate love, are very similar to the release of neurotransmitters in the brain that we have when we crave anything,” says Salini.
Psychology suggests that, when in love, dopamine releases in the brain cause feelings of craving and addiction that are not unlike the craving of chocolate or the addiction to drugs such as heroin and cocaine.
Levels of serotonin, a hormone regulating learning, mood and sleep, have been found significantly lower in individuals that are in love. People experiencing romantic love experience a drop in serotonin levels similar to individuals who suffer from obsessive-compulsive behavior, which leads experts to believe this may be the reason some individuals who fall in love can become obsessive.
Epinephrine, a hormone responsible for the human response of fight or flight, more commonly known as adrenaline, is also triggered when people experience love.
Epinephrine causes the heart to beat faster and stronger, which may influence why love makes some feel anxious. In addition, heartbreak, loss of a loved one, and rejection experts say, cause many to be at higher risk for heart disease.
Norepinephrine, like epinephrine, is produced in the adrenal glands. It is a stress hormone that controls attention, focus and responding actions. Because of the lowering of blood pressure that results when norepinephrine is released, psychologists have also found that people in love are less stressed. However, in cases when love runs amuck, elevations in stress are found.
When it comes to critical social assessment and decision-making, romantic feelings may at times, defy logic. Certain parts of the brain become deactivated when we’re in love, including evaluation of trustworthiness and fear.
Though society benefits from knowledge of the relationship between love and its physical and psychological manifestations, the placement of scientific explanation upon the nature of love is an issue that doesn’t sit well with some.
“I think there’s controversy [in scientifically explaining love] because we think that if we know it, it takes away the mystery,” says Salini, “but in my experience the more I know, the more mystery I find; and the more I know, the more beautiful it is.”