Love is a complex emotion, and it can be difficult to define. It’s an emotion that can have many different meanings, and it can be applied to many things — people, non-human animals, principles, or even religions. But most people agree that love is a positive emotion that brings feelings of warmth and affection.
The scientific community has only been studying love as a concept for about 75 years, but in that time it’s become clear that our brains are wired to react to love differently than most other emotions. Love is a feeling that triggers a unique set of physiological changes — think sweaty palms, loss of appetite and that pitter-patter in your heart — and can affect our behavior in very different ways.
Scientists have also found that the way we fall in love is very different from how other mammals feel in love. While other species are driven by the need to reproduce, humans are more motivated by the desire to be close to another person. This closeness enables us to share a sense of identity and purpose, which is important to our survival as a social species.
Researchers have discovered that when people are in the throes of romantic love, their brains are rich with dopamine, the neurotransmitter associated with reward and pleasure. When we are in this state, our attention is focused on the object of our affection and the world around them, and parts of the brain responsible for detecting danger (the amygdala) and making decisions (frontal lobes) go into hibernation. This lack of judgment can lead to some very silly or dangerous things, such as confessing your love to a hundred strangers at a party.
While lust and obsession are natural components of love, they can be toxic if not managed properly. In the case of lust, our brains produce elevated levels of testosterone and estrogen, which cause us to focus on physical attraction, increase heart rate, and create sweaty palms. Then, as we begin to develop deeper feelings of attachment, the brain floods again with dopamine and oxytocin, which cause a sense of bonding, heightened motivation and the desire to be intimate.
Finally, when we move into commitment phase, our brains are flooded with serotonin, which makes us calm and gives a sense of security. This is the point at which most people realize that they’re truly in love and want to be with the person for life.
But what happens when those loving feelings start to fade? This is a common occurrence, and it can be hard to know when it’s time to call it quits. In a recent study, scientists found that when someone is no longer feeling the spark of romance, their brain begins to shrink and they experience negative mood swings. They also lose their ability to remember past experiences with the person, which can make them irrational and depressed. This can be a warning sign that it’s time to break up before the situation worsens.