Oxytocin and Dopamine Shape Romantic Love, Study Finds

While oxytocin is responsible for the positive feelings romantic love produces, the combination of oxytocin and dopamine released by the brain is what changes people’s behaviors — leading them to prioritize the object of their affection above all else and put their loved one on a pedestal, according to new research.

Romantic love is one of the most euphoric experiences of being human, and experts have long attributed the hyper-positive feelings it brings to the release of oxytocin — the so-called love drug. New research goes beyond the feelings of love to examine the behaviors that come with it, finding that the brain actually reacts differently when in love, causing someone to make their romantic interest or partner the center of their world.

The research, published in Behavioral Sciences, is the first to explore the link between the human brain’s behavioral activation system (BAS) and romantic love in an effort to determine what it is that makes us prioritize a romantic partner above everything, particularly during the early stages of love.

Researchers from the ANU, the University of Canberra, and the University of South Australia validated and then used the Behavioral Activation System — Sensitivity to a Loved One (BAS-SLO) Scale to examine the connection between the BAS and the intensity of romantic love, finding that romantic love is linked to changes in behavior as well as emotion.

"People experiencing romantic love display a range of cognitions, emotions, and behaviors suggestive of heightened BAS activity," the authors wrote. "These include increased reward valuation, willingness to expend effort to gain reward, heightened initial hedonic response to success in the form of learning deficits, and lack of satiety in response to success."

Heightened BAS activity results in the release of dopamine, and it’s the combination of oxytocin and dopamine that activates pathways in the brain associated with positive feelings and causes a loved one to take on a particular importance.

The mystery of romantic love

This research presents the first direct evidence of the relationships between BAS sensitivity and romantic love, suggesting that BAS sensitivity to a loved one is a real phenomenon. This, according to the authors, has implications for understanding the mechanisms and evolutionary history of romantic love.

Next, researchers plan to investigate the differences between genders in their approach to love and conduct a worldwide survey identifying the different types of romantic lovers.

"We actually know very little about the evolution of romantic love," said ANU lead researcher and PhD student Adam Bode in a news release. "As a result, every finding that tells us about romantic love’s evolution is an important piece of the puzzle that’s just been started."

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