the science of falling in love
Sex and relationships

The science of falling in love

Dr. Naomi Lavelle from Dr. Science Wows gives us a fascinating insight into exactly what happens to us when we fall in love. Who knew it was so complicated?!

I love Bjork’s song about falling in love (“It’s oh so quiet“), I think it really accurately describes the chaos involved. We talk about being madly in love and sometimes that is exactly what it is – madness. Let’s take a look at the biological and neurological events behind it all. What is the science of falling in love?

Is love ruled by the heart or the brain?

A study printed in 2010 entitled The neuroimaging of love describes 12 separate areas of the brain involved in the complicated process of love. These areas control the release of a number of chemicals that result in the biological responses within our bodies; Our clear minded focus on the object of our desire, the flushes of our cheeks, the butterflies in our stomach and the fluttering of our heart… the result of hormones (such as testosterone and oestrogen) and neurotransmitters (such as dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, adrenaline and vasopressin).

Head over heels in love

So what is actually responsible for that first flush of love that literally leaves us tripping over ourselves? Our bodies are awash with a wonderful cocktail of chemicals literally making us light headed and dizzy. We show a strong focus of thought, an increased tendency to take risks and a large increase in energy, stamina and motivation.

Madly in love

It may not surprise some of you to learn that the activity in the brain during the early stages of love have been likened to those seen in certain mental illnesses. Sufferers of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), for example, exhibit enhanced brain activity in similar areas and experience reduced levels of serotonin (40% less) as do people in the first flush of love. Both tend towards single minded obsession on a particular object, in the case of the love struck that enhanced focus falls on the object of their desire.

the science of falling in love

Love is the drug

It seems love really is THE drug, as the effect on the body during those early, heady days of love share a remarkable resemblance to the biological effects of a hit of cocaine! Dopamine, released in larger quantities during the early stages of love, causes that drug like high, including the euphoria, the sweaty palms and the rapid heartbeat. Unfortunately, falling out of love can be just as long and painful as kicking a chemical addiction.

Biological anthropologist, Dr. Helen Fischer describes it well when she says “romantic love is one of the most addictive substances on Earth”. Apparently it can take as little as one fifth of a second to fall in love!

What happens after the first flush?

The honeymoon period is said to last two to three months. The falling in love part can be broken down into three phases…

  • Lust, governed by the sex hormones oestrogen and testosterone
  • Attraction, controlled by the neurotransmitters dopamine, serotonin and adrenalin
  • Attachment cemented by elevated doses of oxytocin and vasopressin

Once the heady stages of love start to wane the major “long term bonding” comes under the control of oxytocin and vasopressin. The higher levels of oxytocin (the cuddle hormone) are understandable, it is linked to the bonding process between mother and baby and helps with the let-down of milk during breastfeeding. Overall, the more physical and demonstrative the loving couple are, the more oxytocin is produced, strengthening their bond.

However, the role of vasopressin is a little more surprising. It is primarily linked with water retention and kidney activity and it was a study on prairie voles, of all things, that lead to the link between vasopressin and bonding of couples. Vasopressin is present in high levels in prairie mates, but researchers noticed that when it is clinically suppressed in the male prairie vole his interest in the female abated and he stops protecting her from the advances of rival mates.

Keeping love alive 

Studies have shown that couples who are more physical and affectionate with each other are more likely to have a stronger, long term relationship. Staying positive about your partner also seems to play a vital role. Couples who actively engage in exciting and novel activities together also have a better chance of staying together. So for your next “date night” check out your nearest sky diving or bungee jumping club!

Back to Bjork

Despite all this science to explain it, I still think Bjork nails it with her description of falling in love, so I leave you with this… and whether you are in the calm or the chaos of love, I hope you have a wonderful Valentine’s Day.

More like this:

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Achieveable romance
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Ask Sarah

Q I’ve heard a lot about the Paleo diet and as I am very interested in reducing the amount of processed foods and grain based meals my family eats, we are considering following this diet. From what I read it seems to be a back-to-basics type of eating. Is a Paleo diet safe for children? My kids are aged seven and nine.

A The Paleo diet is one of the most fashionable diets around at the moment. It is also known as the ‘caveman diet’ and is based on cutting out processed foods, starchy foods like bread and potatoes and eating more meat, vegetables and fruit.
As fad diets go, it is not the worst but there are some good and bad sides to it. Reducing the amount of processed foods we eat is always a good idea and by doing that you will usually reduce the amount of fat, salt and sugar you eat, which is a good thing! The problem with the Paleo diet is that it also cuts out dairy (on the basis that cavemen didn’t drink milk) and this means that the diet is very low in calcium. For this reason it is really not suitable for children who do need a lot of calcium for growing bones. How did cavemen manage without dairy? They ate a lot more food than we do (up to 10,000 calories per day compared to the 2,000 most of us eat). By eating that amount of food they were able to pick up just enough calcium from green vegetables and seeds. To put it in perspective, you would need to eat 16 servings of broccoli a day to get all the calcium you need. This is easier to do if you eat 10,000 calories per day rather than 2,000.
The other problem with the paleo diet is that it is not entirely based in science. Many of the Paleo diets out there say you should not eat wheat, even though we know that cavemen did in fact eat wheat and other grains. These diets also don’t recommend that you eat blubber and the big lumps of fat that were also a large part of the caveman diet!
A final problem is that many Paleo diets encourage people to cut out beans and lentils and to get their protein from meat and fish instead. Many studies over the last few years are clear that eating too much animal protein is linked with more cancer and heart disease. Eating some vegetarian meals based on beans and lentils is a great way to get your protein without always going for meat.
Is this a diet we should follow? I think there is a lot we can learn from the Paleo diets. We could all do with eating less salt, sugar and processed foods and adding in more nuts and seeds as well as more vegetables. However, I think following a strict Paleo diet could lead to low levels of calcium and vitamin D and so it is not suitable for children or teens and adults would need to think about a calcium supplement.

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Ask Sarah

Q I’ve heard a lot about the Paleo diet and as I am very interested in reducing the amount of processed foods and grain based meals my family eats, we are considering following this diet. From what I read it seems to be a back-to-basics type of eating. Is a Paleo diet safe for children? My kids are aged seven and nine.

A The Paleo diet is one of the most fashionable diets around at the moment. It is also known as the ‘caveman diet’ and is based on cutting out processed foods, starchy foods like bread and potatoes and eating more meat, vegetables and fruit.
As fad diets go, it is not the worst but there are some good and bad sides to it. Reducing the amount of processed foods we eat is always a good idea and by doing that you will usually reduce the amount of fat, salt and sugar you eat, which is a good thing! The problem with the Paleo diet is that it also cuts out dairy (on the basis that cavemen didn’t drink milk) and this means that the diet is very low in calcium. For this reason it is really not suitable for children who do need a lot of calcium for growing bones. How did cavemen manage without dairy? They ate a lot more food than we do (up to 10,000 calories per day compared to the 2,000 most of us eat). By eating that amount of food they were able to pick up just enough calcium from green vegetables and seeds. To put it in perspective, you would need to eat 16 servings of broccoli a day to get all the calcium you need. This is easier to do if you eat 10,000 calories per day rather than 2,000.
The other problem with the paleo diet is that it is not entirely based in science. Many of the Paleo diets out there say you should not eat wheat, even though we know that cavemen did in fact eat wheat and other grains. These diets also don’t recommend that you eat blubber and the big lumps of fat that were also a large part of the caveman diet!
A final problem is that many Paleo diets encourage people to cut out beans and lentils and to get their protein from meat and fish instead. Many studies over the last few years are clear that eating too much animal protein is linked with more cancer and heart disease. Eating some vegetarian meals based on beans and lentils is a great way to get your protein without always going for meat.
Is this a diet we should follow? I think there is a lot we can learn from the Paleo diets. We could all do with eating less salt, sugar and processed foods and adding in more nuts and seeds as well as more vegetables. However, I think following a strict Paleo diet could lead to low levels of calcium and vitamin D and so it is not suitable for children or teens and adults would need to think about a calcium supplement.