Love is . . . ‘almost like a psychological disorder’

Love might be good for the heart, and even your mood, but it is in the brain where the drama really plays out

Thu, Feb 13, 2014, 01:00

Valentine hearts are everywhere at this time of year as people celebrate the power of love. But forget about your heart: love doesn’t happen there, it is a drama played out in your head.

You can put it down to romance, but it is the brain that gives you that feeling of euphoria, the butterflies in your stomach and the sweaty palms when you meet that special person. And it is your brain deciding if you are overwhelmed by love at first sight.

Brain chemistry goes haywire, and your release of hormones goes into overdrive when your eyes meet those of another across a crowded room, says Dr Stella Vlachou, director of the behavioural neuroscience laboratory at the school of nursing and human sciences in Dublin City University. She knows just how much of an impact love can have on the human brain.

My chemical romance
First it throws your brain-signalling chemicals, the neurotransmitters, off balance, she says. More dopamine is released, an important substance in the pleasure and reward systems of the brain. And serotonin is reduced, a neurotransmitter that is related to mood, appetite, and sleep.

Your body responds by rapidly changing the hormone mix, for example increasing the release of the hormone adrenalin. This immediately leaves you with damp palms, shortness of breath, light-headedness and dizziness, even before you have had a chance to walk across that room.

The hormone oxytocin is also released, which plays an important role in the neuroanatomy of intimacy, childbirth and lactation. It is sometimes called the “bonding hormone” because of its impact on relationships, says Dr Vlachou.

The brain itself also changes from its normal routine, she says. “There is an activation of specific areas of the brain and a reduction in others.”

Activity in the brain’s reward system – including the orbital frontal cortex, the nucleus accumbens and the hypothalamus – rises when couples first meet and fall in love, and together they provide feelings of pleasure and reward. A very similar brain response occurs when people take drugs such as cocaine.

Other important areas of the brain are down-regulated, including the amygdala, an area that controls emotional response to things such as fear. The prefrontal cortex also eases back in its role in overseeing cognitive function but also decision making and judgment. It becomes much harder to say no.

Heightened bonding and reduced judgment seem a recipe for a tryst that could lead to something else. “It would be a way to secure that there will be reproduction. Work at University College London by Dr Semir Zeki showed that the physiological response acts this way because it makes reproduction more likely,” says Dr Vlachou.

“That is probably why these responses are universal in the human population. Reactions are heightened and controls are reduced. It seems as if the brain is controlling us, rather than us controlling the brain.”

Ironically, many of the changes sparked off by that old black magic called love are often seen in another context. There are similarities between the symptoms of being in love and those associated with psychological disorders, she says.

“If you are in love it is almost like you have a psychosocial disorder.”

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