Science Articles

What is Love?

Thu, 11th Feb 2010

The power of genetics and neuroscience is revealing the chemical clockwork underlying love...

Chris Smith

“Love is the drug and I need to score,” sang Bryan Ferry in the seventies, earning him a smash hit and a small fortune. But apart from being a catchy song lyric, this line is also

' alt='Victorian Valentine's Day Card' >looking like a scientifically-accurate fact of life.

That’s because, in recent years, researchers have begun to bring the power of modern genetics and neuroscience to bear on the workings of the human psyche, including the “big” question of love and what is it?

Somewhat unromantically, the results of these endeavours are showing is that the simple answer is that love amounts to little more than a chemical addiction. In fact the same brain circuits become active when volunteers in a scanner are shown pictures of their loved ones as when a nicotine-starved smoker lights up their first cigarette of the day! And the molecular clockwork of that lovin’ feelin’ is a small family of nerve transmitter chemicals called oxytocin, vasopressin and dopamine.

Oxytocin is released in the brain during orgasms, during childbirth and by breast feeding, which has led scientists to suspect that it may be linked to mother-baby bonding and that perhaps this, “love” and partner attachments are all a manifestation of the same process.

Experimentally the evidence is quite compelling. Amongst sheep, a mother can be persuaded to foster a lamb that isn’t her own by delivering a brief puff of oxytocin into her nose before introducing the lamb, and unmated female rats become highly maternal around rat pups that they would previously have killed when given a dose of the chemical beforehand.

Humans are affected too. Volunteers given doses of oxytocin develop enhanced sensations of trust for those nearby, become more sensitive to the emotions of others and also spend longer looking at peoples’ faces (as opposed to the breast or trouser region). This suggests that, couples who experience orgasms together are effectively programming each others’ brains to love and trust one another!

But trust also usually demands monogamy, the mediator of which is vasopressin. Studies on voles have shown that a polygamous vole species known as the meadow vole can be transformed into behaving like its monogamous prairie vole cousin either by adding extra vasopressin to its brain or by increasing the brain’s sensitivity to the substance.

The same seems to apply to humans: a study carried out last year in Sweden found that individuals with one variant of a gene used in the brain to detect vasopressin levels were twice as likely to report a recent marital crisis, and only half as likely to be married in the first place, compared with individuals not carrying that form of the gene.

Administering vasopressin to volunteers also produces changes in behaviour. Men adopt a more aggressive posture including looking more menacing and also becoming much more protective of their partners. And when shown photographs of other peoples’ faces they tend to rate them as looking less friendly than they did before vasopressin was given.

So what about the addictive part of love? The sensation that you cannot survive without the other person, and the rush of joy when you see them after being away?

This is down to dopamine, the brain’s pleasure chemical. When nerve cells squirt small amounts of this into a brain region called the nucleus accumbens it produces sensations of euphoria and satisfaction.

We use this circuitry to reward ourselves when we do something right, whether that’s learning a new fact, passing a driving test or making someone happy. It’s the way that the brain reinforces learning and good behaviour. It’s also the target of drugs like cocaine and heroin, which effectively short-circuit this same brain mechanism to achieve their pleasurable effects.

But this is also where Bryan Ferry’s famous lyric comes in, because dopamine lies downstream of the effects of the other two chemical love-drugs, vasopressin and oxytocin. When these chemical signals are active they trigger the release of an addictive surge of dopamine in order to consolidate their effects. So you are, quite literally, getting hooked on your partner.

Being able to distil love down to a series of chemical reactions like this is informative and helpful on the one hand because it will very likely enable scientists and doctors to help patients with conditions like autism, which make it hard for them to form relationships with other people.

But it also opens the door to a much more nefarious future, and in which we will have the pharmacological ability to manipulate love with a drug. For now though, the chat up line “could you just sniff this” should probably serve as a warning...!

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Chris thanks for this very thought provoking article (What Is Love?)  I was surprised to learn that we now have the capability to distil love down to a series of chemical reactions.  How exciting!
Best Regards,
Charlie Kirkpatrick mrkirkpatrick, Sat, 27th Feb 2010

Wow... That makes these lyrics right on..." You might as well face it you're addicted to love....
________________________________________________________________

__Robert Palmer-Addicted to love _______________________________________________________________

Your lights are on, but you're not home
Your mind is not your own
Your heart sweats, your body shakes
Another kiss is what it takes

You can't sleep, you can't eat
There's no doubt, you're in deep
Your throat is tight, you can't breathe
Another kiss is all you need

Whoa, you like to think that you're immune to the stuff, oh yeah
It's closer to the truth to say you can't get enough
You know you're gonna have to face it, you're addicted to love

You see the signs, but you can't read
You're runnin' at a different speed
Your heart beats in double time
Another kiss and you'll be mine, a one track mind

You can't be saved
Oblivion is all you crave
If there's some left for you
You don't mind if you do

Whoa, you like to think that you're immune to the stuff, oh yeah
It's closer to the truth to say you can't get enough
You know you're gonna have to face it, you're addicted to love

Might as well face it, you're addicted to love
Might as well face it, you're addicted to love
Might as well face it, you're addicted to love
Might as well face it, you're addicted to love
Might as well face it, you're addicted to love

------ lead guitar ------

Your lights are on, but you're not home
Your will is not your own
You're heart sweats and teeth grind
Another kiss and you'll be mine

Whoa, you like to think that you're immune to the stuff, oh yeah
It's closer to the truth to say you can't get enough
You know you're gonna have to face it, you're addicted to love

Might as well face it, you're addicted to love
Might as well face it, you're addicted to love
Might as well face it, you're addicted to love
Might as well face it, you're addicted to love
Might as well face it, you're addicted to love
Karen W., Sat, 27th Feb 2010

Joking aside, The article is great and I just must say that love really does feel addictive and it makes you certainly crave it and need it in your life to feel whole and complete.. its nice to know that there really is a chemical reaction happening here..... Karen W., Thu, 4th Mar 2010

Puts a whole new spin on the claim of "chemistry" between two people doesn't it! chris, Mon, 15th Mar 2010

Yes it certainly does...LOL.. Karen W., Wed, 17th Mar 2010

hi,
Would you like to fall in love? Are you single, dating, and looking for a long term relationship? There are six elements that have been identified by counselors, therapists, and researchers that determine if someone will fall in love with you. They are:

First impression

If you want someone to fall in love with you, it is important to remember that the first time they see you is most likely when they make an assessment of you. Some key areas to pay attention to are: your smile (whiten your teeth), your clothes (wear something flattering that fits and is a good color for you), your shoes (women spend a lot of time shopping for shoes, so guys need to be aware of finding attractive shoes), your hands (men like to see manicures; women do not like to see men with chewed nails).

Similar and complementary qualities

People fall in love when they have similar and complementary qualities. Contrary to popular belief, we are not attracted to someone who is too different from the way we are...at least in values. If you do not share similar values, you may find yourself bumping up against a non-negotiable requirement which will eventually break you up.

Ego

If you are a dating single looking for a lasting relationship, pay attention to how you validate others. People fall in love with someone who sees who they are and likes what they see. Don't be afraid to give and receive compliments.

Communication

People fall in love with you when you are a good listener, reflect back to the speaker what they have said, and show that you appreciate and hear what they communicate. People are just dying to be heard and understood.

Sex

The attitude a person has about sex is important to a lasting relationship. Men in particular will not stay in a marriage where there is no sex.


stocktips02, Wed, 8th Sep 2010

I had a project due and this stuff really helped thanks The good kid, Fri, 11th Mar 2011

Pleasure - glad to have helped Chris, Mon, 9th May 2011

I`m not sure that love and science are connected  doelmel, Sat, 13th Aug 2011

i know a few people who could do with dopamine suppressors nicci.day, Fri, 19th Aug 2011

bingo?
CZARCAR, Fri, 19th Aug 2011

maybe like the diff betwween gravity & magnetism? = child love, sex love,god love , ,,,,00ps, surpassed my 2 parameters CZARCAR, Fri, 19th Aug 2011

Chris, I really enjoyed your article! Great stuff with the scientific research, particularly the polyamorous voles. As a student and enthusiast of Love I really appreciate your thoughts, so much so that I included it in an blog article, 101+ Ideas On What Is Love. Check it out if you have a moment: http://www.love-olution.com/blog/2012/05/101-ideas-on-what-is-love-philosophically-scientifically-spiritually-and-beyond/ Thanks again for your contribution Chris! Aaron Mangal, Wed, 2nd May 2012

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