Updated: May 24
Love has often been sensationalized – from Byronian couplets to real life. The expectation of what love is – and how it is meant to be received, perceived, and nurtured, has drawn discussions ranging from movies to neuroscience. Picture this: you walk into that someone you find incredibly attractive. Stay here a minute.
For our visual musings, let’s imagine you also happen to know the person. Perhaps you felt your face flush. Maybe you talked too much or couldn’t work the fine coordination of brain-to-tongue rhythm to get the right words out, or any words out. Embarrassed nod, awkward giggle, tipsy exit – and that heart rate kicking up a few notches – okay, more than a few, with palms seeming like they just experienced the worst Texan summer?
The heart has been a rendition of love, but the more apt version may be a frantic brain. Per Rutgers scientist, Dr. Fisher, love can be categorized into lust, attraction, and attachment.
Category 1: Lust:
It’s propelled by the yearning for sexual pleasure. It has an evolutionary foundation arising from our need to reproduce. Per Fisher’s research, the brain plays a vital role in activating this desire by stimulating the production of sex hormones estrogen and testosterone; testosterone increases libido in both genders, not merely in men as is stereotypical portrayed, while estrogen, though less pronounced, reportedly increases sexual desire in women during their highest estrogen cycle – ovulation.
Category 2: Attraction:
Here is where the feel good hormone dopamine plays a central role. Per research, brain pathways that powerhouse rewarding behavior are orchestrated by attraction. This is where the person takes on a special meaning and intrusive thoughts come flooding in. Fisher details a cocktail of emotions experienced in this category ranging from feelings of exhilaration, increased energy, sleeplessness, loss of appetite, trembling, flushing, shyness, awkwardness, gazing, butterflies in the stomach, weak knees, pounding heart, uncertainty, anxiety, panic, and a longing for reciprocity.
Interestingly, attraction also reduces levels of serotonin – a hormone that Fisher explains regulates appetite and mood. Sufferers of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) also show low levels of serotonin, leading scientists to hypothesize the underlying superpower running infatuation on high drive, which strangely enough, also highlights the starting stages of love.
Since dopamine is one of the main hormones responsible for the brain’s reward circuitry, it controls both the highs and lows felt when a person experiences love.
Addiction studies showcasing dopamine pathway highlight regions of the brain that light up when an addict takes cocaine as when our brain is feeling the high of attraction. Attraction can be summed to literally feel like an addiction to another being. An addict going through the throes of withdrawal is, due to our brain’s hard wiring, agonizingly akin to a love-struck person yearning for the sight of their beloved.
Category 3: Attachment
Which rolls us into our third category, the predominant factor in long term relationships – attachment. While the former two categories are flooded with fiery intensity and a whirlwind of highs and lows, attachment shifts and settles, weighing in heavily on comfortable satisfactions – cordiality, bonding, and friendship. Per Fisher, the two main hormones appearing here are oxycontin and vasopressin. Oxycontin is known to be a “bonding” hormone; it’s labeled the “cuddle hormone”, and is released in large quantities during childbirth, sex, and breastfeeding – all precursors to bonding experiences, though each may appear vastly different in its scope.
Though oxycontin sounds uber pro-positive, reinforcing usually good feelings we associate towards people we love and in turn making us more attached to our family, significant other, and friends, it also cements ethnocentrism, making people who are not like us culturally seem distant and foreign.
Though love, especially of the lust-attraction kind is romanticized, Fisher points to sobering statistics: 25% of homicides in the US involves crimes of passion; 1.8 million wives face domestic violence due to the most common noted cause of male jealousy, and 56% of college women report harassment by a rejected lover.
Are you going through relationship stressors, or do you need support with gaining self-acceptance to allow a nurturing relationship to ignite? The hormones may do the sparking, but the rest of you gets to initiate the flame. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Fisher, Helen. “Lust, Attraction, and Attachment in Mammalian Reproduction.” Http://Www.helenfisher.com, Rutgers University and Human Nature, 29 July 1996, www.helenfisher.com/downloads/articles/10lustattraction.pdf.
Image: Seluk, Nick. “Love Is Magical-Ish.” The Awkward Yeti, 13 Feb. 2016, theawkwardyeti.com/comic/love-magical-ish/.
©2020 by Irem Choksy, LMFT