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Love: A Chemical Explosion in Your Brain

2017-2-13

From VOA Learning English, this is the Health & Lifestyle report.

In the United States, February 14 is Valentine’s Day -- a day to celebrate lovers and loving relationships. Images of red hearts are everywhere. Lovers say nice things to each other, like “I love you with all my heart” or “I love you heart and soul.”

After all, many cultures view a big, beautiful, red heart as the traditional sign of love.

But maybe it shouldn’t be. Maybe the symbol of love should be a big, soft, gray brain. As it turns out, love is more an activity of the brain than an affair of the heart.

Turkish couple sit on bench under an umbrella in Turkey. (AP Photo/Murad Sezer)
Turkish couple sit on bench under an umbrella in Turkey. (AP Photo/Murad Sezer)

Over the years, research has shown that love affects the brain in many ways and in a number of areas. Psychology Today magazine’s online blog looked at some studies and noted the results.

The blog explains that researchers generally use a technology called functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, to study the brain. This technology can follow movement of blood inside the brain.

When a thought, substance, movement, or anything else activates a part of the brain, blood flow to that area increases. So, fMRIs can identify both the exact location in the brain and the amount of blood.

The magazine reports that these love studies note something similar: that a brain on love looks a lot like a brain on drugs.

In 2010, researchers at Syracuse University in New York state worked with other scientists in West Virginia and Switzerland.

Syracuse professor Stephanie Ortigue led this study. Ortigue and her team found that falling in love created the same "euphoric feelings as using cocaine." They found that “12 areas of the brain work in tandem to release euphoric-inducing chemicals such as dopamine, oxytocin” and adrenaline.

When we are smitten with someone, chemicals such as adrenaline make our face turn red, our hands sweat and our heart beat faster.

The website Health.com describes dopamine as the brain’s pleasure chemical. It activates the reward circuit in our brain and plays a role in drug addiction and falling in love. Dopamine makes lovers feel happy and energetic about each other.

Oxytocin is known as the “love hormone” because it deepens feelings of attachment. Oxytocin is the hormone that plays a role during pregnancy, nursing and in mother-baby attachment.

Ortigue’s team also found that falling in love affected intellectual areas of the brain and not just the pleasure and reward center of the brain where drug habits may begin.

As a side note, they also found that falling in love takes about “a fifth of a second.”

In 2012, researchers at Concordia University in Canada with teams in Switzerland and the United States looked at sexual desire, or lust, and long-term attachment, or love, more closely.

They wanted to know if lust and love affected the brain differently.

The researchers of this study asked the study subjects to look at sexy, erotic pictures of strangers and photographs of loved ones. Then the researchers recorded their brain activity with fMRIs. They found that love and lust activate “specific, but related areas of the brain.”

What they found, for the most part, is that sexual desire and love seem to affect two parts of the brain the most: the insula and the striatum. It’s no surprise that they found these are also parts of the brain most often affected by drug use.

But now, let’s get back to lust versus love.

Lustful, sexual desires begin in the pleasure center of the striatum. As these feelings develop into attachment love, they appear to still be processed in the striatum but in a different area. This area is activated by love. And it is involved in the process of giving value to things that give us pleasure, like food, sex and drugs.

Jim Pfaus of Concordia was the lead writer of a report on that study. He told Psychology Today that, “Love is actually a habit that is formed from sexual desire as desire is rewarded. It works the same way in the brain as when people become addicted to drugs.”

So, if you celebrate Valentine’s Day remember that your feelings of love are really a complicated chemical reaction happening in your brain -- which if you like science -- is actually kind of sexy.

However, if your partner isn’t so scientifically-minded, maybe keep the science to yourself and instead give them a gift of flowers or chocolate this Valentine’s Day.

And that’s the Health & Lifestyle report. I’m Anna Matteo.

Anna Matteo wrote this story for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

symbol n. something that stands for or suggests something else by reason of relationship, association, convention, or accidental resemblance; especially : a visible sign of something invisible <the lion is a symbol of courage>

affair n. a romantic or passionate attachment typically of limited duration

euphoria n. a feeling of well-being or elation : euphoria adj.

tandem n. in partnership or conjunction

dopamine n. Biochemistry : a compound present in the body as a neurotransmitter and a precursor of other substances including epinephrine, acting within the brain to help regulate movement and emotion

to be smitten with someone slang expression to be captivated and strongly attracted to someone <He was smitten with her beauty.>

circuit n. a neuronal pathway of the brain along which electrical and chemical signals travel

erotic adj. of, devoted to, or tending to arouse sexual love or desire <erotic art> : strongly marked or affected by sexual desire