Hey everyone, It's Cara Santa Maria. Love is arguably one of the greatest enigmas of all human nature. It is the very definition of ineffable. And although it is nearly impossible to define, those of us who have known love understand the painful bliss that the poet Keats felt in his dying letter to his fiance: "I cannot exist without you. I am forgetful of everything but seeing you again. My life seems to stop there. I see no further. You have absorb'd me."
Although it is hard to qualify what love really is, it hasn't stopped scientists from attempting to quantify it. Researchers have peered into the brains of people who report being in love. What they have found is that in the early stages of a relationship, people show increased activity in the ventral tegmental area, the dopamine factory that makes us crave things like sex and chocolate. Eventually this initial attraction and lust fades into attachment, which occurs in the nucleus accumbens and the caudate nuceli. These brain regions add serotonin, oxytocin, and vasopressin to the mix, along with a strong sense of permanence.
Serotonin is the neurotransmitter that is altered by the largest class antidepressant drugs, the SSRIs. It is also the chemical responsible for the ecstasy that people experience when they take the drug methylenedioxymethamphetamine, or, well, ecstasy. Oxytocin and vasopressin are the neurochemicals responsible for the strong bonding that exists between mother and child. They are known to increase trust and decrease anxiety, two ingredients necessary for true love. And although the emotions we feel during sex can be fleeting, most researchers agree that love is more than passion. It's bonding. It's commitment.
Neuroscientists have shown that in some ways, love is similar to addiction. A painful breakup mimics the symptoms of withdrawal. It hurts so badly to lose our one and only. We don't want them back, we need them back, and only time can temper the heartache.
Attraction, sex, love...these things are so difficult to intellectualize. And while even the most fleeting connections can cause us to utterly lose ourselves, I disagree with the premise that the more we know, the less we feel. The ignorant eye sees magic where there is reason. While the inquisitive, scientific eye wants to know why its experiences are so awe-inspiring. Of course we may never know the true nature of human sexuality and love, but to know ourselves sexually is to know ourselves intimately, to know how we relate to one another, and to know our place in the grand evolutionary story. Without sex or love, we wouldn't be here, and neither would our children. And for them, there is so much yet to learn.
Let's learn together. Hit me up on Twitter, Facebook, or leave your comments on my blog. Come on, Talk Nerdy to Me!
Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience
Societies of Brains: A Study in the Neuroscience of Love and Hate
Archives of Sexual Behavior
Journal of Neurophysiology