October 17th, 2014
Physical attraction, love, sexual desire – all feelings that strongly drive our behavior. And although the subject of millions of romantic songs, poems and paintings, these emotions are above all the result of (unromantic) chemical reactions taking place in our brains.
In the book The Chemistry Between Us, neuroscientist Larry Young and science journalist Brian Alexander explain how love, sex, and human social bonding is created in our brains, and how that influences and, at times, controls our behavior.
How would you describe “love”?
Brian: “For most of our book, Larry and I discuss love as a biological process, and I think that’s true. It’s very important to understand that process for many reasons. But we don’t insist that this biological process is the ONLY way to describe love.”
Larry: “As a neuroscientist, I think of love in terms of brain mechanisms. Therefore, from my perspective, love is the manifestation of a series of chemical reactions taking place in well-defined brain circuits.”
Brian: “Obviously, millions of people over many thousands of years have talked about, written about, depicted, love in ways that helped them make sense of it. I think all these are valid. What we have done, based on Larry’s work, and that of his fellow scientists, is made an attempt to lay out for readers what lies behind all these other ways of describing love, what’s the biological foundation of it. Why do we act the way we do?”
What exactly happens in our brain when we fall in love?
Larry: “Based on our studies in monogamous prairie voles, we know that the formation of bonds between partners involves activation of the brains reward circuitry, the same brain parts that cocaine acts on to produce the exhilarating high, as well as brain regions that process social information. Dopamine, oxytocin, vasopressin and opiates all act together to forge a connection between pleasure centers of the brain and the neural representation of the features (face, voice, smell, etc) of the partner. The result is not too different from the processes that occur in addiction.”
Do we when we have sex always develop feelings of love?
Larry: “No, sexual desire and even sex do not always lead to love. We don’t know the precise details of this, but it is likely there is some threshold of the right combination of brain activation produced by the neurochemicals discussed above before the neural connections underlying “love” become solidified. That threshold can be tremendously different between individuals.”
Is there a clear difference between men and women? Do women find it more difficult than men to have sex without getting emotionally attached?
Brian: “I think both men and women who are not already bonded to another person, are equally likely to form attachments to sex partners thanks to the brain mechanisms, like the brains reward circuitry. In other words, I think that, for single, unattached people, the concept of sex without any feelings of attachment whatsoever is somewhat mythical. At the very least, if the sex feels good, we are going to want to do it again, and with that person.”
For how long does the feeling of being in love prevail in general, and why does it fade?
Larry: “Based on our studies of pair bonding in animals, there seem to be at least two phases of love. In the formation of the bond, there is activation of the brain’s reward system, so that interactions with the partner are exhilarating. This keeps the individuals in the pair constantly seeking contact with each other. But as time goes on, the bond is maintained less by the exhilaration of being together, but by the negative feelings that emerge when the partners are separated. It is very much like what happens over the course of addiction. In the beginning, the addict seeks drugs to get high. Later the addict seeks drugs to reduce the withdrawal symptoms. We explore the brain chemistry underlying these processes in the book.”
What is the best way to get over an ex?
Larry: “Find a new partner! Reactivate those reward centers with new passion!”
Brian: “Yes, a new relationship would bring back the good feelings that went missing when the old one ended.”
Larry: “We discuss in the book studies done in prairie voles that show that male prairie vole show depressive-like behavior after loosing their bonded partner. This partner-loss induced depression is created by the release of a chemical called CRF, and if we block CRF receptors the male voles get over losing their partner. CRF is involved in the negative effects of drug withdrawal, and I believe that this chemical plays a role in maintaining relationships, creating longing when the partner is gone. But I don’t think using CRF blockers is the way to get over an ex, the best solution is to find new love.”
Brian: “Larry has speculated about a kind of “love vaccine” that could help people get over love gone bad by making use of the love circuits we explore in The Chemistry Between Us. He’s even received inquires from around the world asking for it. Love can really hurt. There’s no such thing, yet, but conceptually there’s no reason why there could not be in the future. Then the question will be whether we really want to use it. As we write in the book, the new knowledge being revealed will raise many ethical questions for the future, both for individuals and society as a whole.”
Source: The Chemistry Between Us
Larry Young, PhD, is the director of the Center for Translational Social Neuroscience, the William P. Timmie Professor of Psychiatry at Emory University School of Medicine, and chief of the Division of Behavioral Neuroscience and Psychiatric Disorders at Yerkes National Primate Research Center.