The Neurochemistry of love, desire, and attraction

Sometimes we think of love as magic; in reality, there are a lot of molecules setting the stage

Actually, love comes from the brain, not the heart. PHOTO: Robina Weermeijer / Unsplash

By: Vee Babbar, SFU Student

It’s likely we’ve all questioned the meaning of love at some point in our lives. Some might think they have never crossed paths with this odd physiological neurochemistry. However, love can come in many forms. It could be as simple as falling head over heels for your new job as a bartender in the bustling streets of Berlin, or as complex as trying to understand molecular thermodynamics. This wizardry is inevitable and is bound to happen sooner or later, transcending all boundaries and expectations. The complexity of this affection is a testament to this powerful emotion’s depth and versatility. Whether romantic love, platonic love, or love for a new adventure, passion reminds us of the boundless possibilities of human emotion.

Love is more than just a feeling; beinglove-struck” releases neurotransmitters. These are chemicals released from the brain in response to our actions. Their role is to deliver messages between the brain and every part of the human body. When it comes to attraction, romance, and pleasure, the main neurotransmitter released is dopamine. This chemical released in high levels activates the reward circuit, causing a pleasurable experience. Oxytocin is another hormone associated with love and romance. Oxytocin levels increase with sexual arousal and an orgasm and might be associated with pain-relieving effects, creating a possible association between pain and pleasure. What’s more, something similar happens with the consumption of chocolates. Chocolate can elevate a person’s mood through the release of a cocktail of oxytocin, dopamine, and many other chemicals that might give a similar sensation to the feeling of love. Chocolate is an aphrodisiac food, releasing soothing chemicals in your brain that increase energy and intimacy desire levelsperhaps this is why we associate them with Valentine’s Day. Other chemicals released during romantic and sexual arousal include: serotonin, which is directly linked with mood and stress reduction and norepinephrine, which increases our heartbeat, and vasopressin. Norepinephrine is released after orgasms and affects each reproductive system differently. This gives a biological basis for the notion that people with an internal reproductive system might experience an emotional connection after sex and people with an external reproductive system tend to feel sleepy. I know, brain chemistry is confusing.

While brain chemistry is a well-studied subject, there are still many misconceptions surrounding neurotransmitters, hormones, and the way they modulate or alter our behavior. Oxytocin, for example, is colloquially associated with bonds forming between partners after consensual sexual encounters, yet, there’s no proof to back up that statement in humans. Yes, oxytocin does increase with sexual activities, but this is primarily due to our evolutionary advancement to encourage humans to indulge in more of it. Oxytocin’s natural purpose has always been to induce feelings of care to nurture your loved ones. But attraction, love, and desire are complex emotions that can be found in an array of very unique scenarios. What makes love different from physical and sexual attraction? To answer that, we must look at it from a more comprehensive lens.

Alec Beall, post-doctoral researcher at the psychology department of UBC, conducted an experiment to better understand the difference between love and sexual desire. Beall showed a group of undergraduate students pictures of puppies and kittens, followed by a survey to assess their sexual desire. The results showed lower levels of such desires when they thought of nurturing the little animals. Beall says oxytocin is released impulsively when an adult simply looks at a puppy or infant with tenderness. The instinct to care for and protect young ones is a fundamental aspect of both human and animal behavior, causing feelings of affection and concern for others. On the other hand, I believe love driven solely by lust or worldly desires lacks genuine emotional connection and care for others. Love stems from the innate desire to nurture and protect those we hold dear.

Love is often misunderstood as a shallow attraction based on someone’s physical appearance, intelligence, or behavior. But true love goes beyond these superficial things as a deep appreciation and care for someone, which is not necessarily conscious or deliberate. It’s a feeling that comes from within and is rooted in a person’s instincts and emotions. 

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