What Your Brain Looks Like When in Love

Your palms are sweaty, your heart is pounding, you can't stop thinking about them. Ah yes, must be love on the brain. We know the physical characteristics but what's exactly going in our head?

Well, it looks a lot like Fourth of July fireworks, according to the American Heart Association. "When you first feel crazy in love, you are stressed out about it and lots of cortisol, the stress hormone, is secreted," said an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School Jacquie Olds, M.D.

"It's at a high level when you're worried that you're falling in love and don't know if it will work out. It's what makes you feel preoccupied and obsessed, almost like it's a matter of life and death."

Phenylethylamine, sometimes referred to as the "love drug," heightens serotonin and is made during earlier stages of love. This prompts the release of norepinephrine, another hormone that guides our body with stress, and also dopamine, a joy chemical. "That's what makes you want to pursue a course of action, getting closer to the one you love," she said. "It's what makes you feel like you are on a cloud, flying through the air."

What your brain looks like when having sex

Dopamine also prompts testosterone in men, which heightens arousal and subdues serotonin, often leading to aggressive actions. Additionally, for women, estrogen triggers an increased sexual drive.

According to a neurosurgeon at the Neurological Surgery at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York, Philip Stieg, Ph.D., M.D., during sexual intercourse, oxytocin is released. This is what allows one to feel connected to the targeted goal. "When you fall in love, you become rather single-minded," said Stieg.

Is being in love healthy?

Despite the general point, love impacts everyone differently as hormones differ between individuals. Hormones play a crucial role in relationships and love.

For example, someone full of dopamine may be more open to risks while a serotonin-filled individual might be more careful about jumping into relationships. Dr. Stieg continued that an adequate amount of love is beneficial for our health.

A prior study also suggests that individuals in love who feel supported by one another have a heightened level of oxytocin, especially when they hug often. For women, higher levels of oxytocin are linked with lower blood pressure. Although love can cause good hormones, it can also create stress.

"If you're not as happy and you are stressed by unrequited love, cortisol is released. Epinephrine is released. This increases the inflammatory response. The heart rate goes up and blood pressure goes up. There's less serotonin and you can become depressed. This can hurt your diet and your sleep cycle."

When the spark starts to decline and love diminishes, "it's just the same as losing somebody from death, or even slightly worse because the other person has decided not to be with you.

Whether you are on the receiving end or not, breaking up can be like a mini-depression because it's such a massive change," continued Olds. Stress caused by love, or the "loss" of love, is just as stressful and detrimental as other negative events in life.

If you’re hopeless about your love life, Stieg said it is possible to get yourself out of a love-sick rut. "All of these systems are regulated by your frontal lobes, the executive center of your brain. It's what assesses risks and consequences. You can change your patterns."

Synchronized brains and happy marriages

More research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science says couples with happier marriages had higher neural synchronization during the study. In the study participants watched marriage-related videos and identical parts of their brains were active. The study used 35 heterosexual couples and scanned the brains using functional MRI while they watched movie clips.

Some watched clips related to marriage, while others were provided with non-marital content. When viewing non-marital content, there were no prompting actions in married couples, despite the satisfaction of their marriage.

"Married couples overall, compared with random couples, had more similar brain activity independent of levels of satisfaction. On top of that, you get additional synchronization in those who self-report to be more satisfied in their marriage," said co-author Vincent Menon, Ph.D.

Neural synchronization implies that two individuals are intaking information homogeneously, but it is unknown whether it indicates similar conscious or subconscious thoughts or even both. Menon said, "We don't know whether there is selection based behaviors arising from similar brain activity in a relationship, or whether couples evolve over time to develop similar anticipatory and predictive brain representations."

Whatever the case, whether you're bringing someone a rose today or not, love makes the world — and our brains — go round.

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