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, so what better time than Valentine’s Day to 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

If 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

Is there such thing as “love at first sight”?

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.

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Ask Tracey

Midwife Tracey Donegan answers your questions about pregnancy and birth

Q When should I have my first pregnancy scan? And how many scans should I get throughout my pregnancy?

A
Your first scan is known as your dating scan and is routine in all hospitals. Most mums will have this scan at their booking visit, which can be anywhere between 12-18 weeks. The earlier the scan the more accurate it will be. If you have experienced recurrent miscarriages some hospitals will scan you earlier. Contact your antenatal clinic for more information. In Ireland, most women will have two scans in a healthy pregnancy – a dating scan and an anomaly scan at around 20 weeks. However, some units provide a dating scan only. Private scans are also available in most cities and many parents use these services for additional reassurance and to find out the sex of their baby.

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ASK JESSICA

Q. I’m would like to start an exercise programme that will benefit my emotional health as much as my physical health, but I don’t know which type of class would be best. Should I consider choosing from yoga, pilates, tai chi, or could you recommend a class, please?

A It’s great that you have decided to get into exercise. The benefits to you are going to be great. You’ll sleep better, have more energy, better skin, reduced stressed, not to mention all the amazing physical benefits of your clothes fitting better, and looking healthy, trim and toned! My advice to you would be to try them all. Even if some don’t offer pay-as-you-go sessions, if you get in touch directly with the instructor, they will almost always let you try it out first to see if it’s for you. All of the above things that you mentioned are great for mental health, so it really will be a personal preference as to which you go for. On top of the classes you mention, all forms of exercise will give you great mental rewards so consider the not so obvious interval training sessions, bootcamp, and circuits too, as you will also feel on top of the world after a class like that.