The euphoria of falling truly, madly, deeply in love is often likened to being high, and with good reason. Research shows that when you’re in love, you really are in a mind-altered state.
Admittedly, studying love has its challenges. A researcher trying to define love might tell you it’s “A cognitive-affective state characterised by intrusive and obsessive fantasising concerning reciprocity of amorant feelings by the object of amorance”. Recognise that? Me neither.
It would be a brave (and likely-to-be-going-home-alone) Romeo who replied to his Juliet: “I reciprocate your amorant feelings”.
But while researchers struggle to define love, scientific techniques can show us how the chemistry of your brain changes when there’s “chemistry” with the one you love.
During the heart-pounding excitement of new love, your brain releases lots of phenylethylamine (PEA). PEA functions like a natural amphetamine, so you really are high on love.
PEA triggers the release of two neurotransmitters: dopamine and norepinephrine. Dopamine is a vital part of the brain’s desire and reward system and is released in response to anything addictive, including cocaine, nicotine, and love. It triggers a rush of pleasure and so reinforces the behaviour that made you feel good.
Whereas dopamine induces feelings of intense pleasure, norepinephrine is the culprit behind the sweaty palms, hyperventilation, and butterflies in the stomach.
The final piece of love’s neurochemical puzzle is serotonin, a neurotransmitter linked with feelings of calmness and well-being. As serotonin regulates mood, low levels of serotonin lead to obsessive thinking, and are commonly found in people with obsessive-compulsive disorder, and the newly in love.
The levels of preoccupation and infatuation we experience when falling in love are genuinely phenomenal. People report spending more than 85% of their waking hours musing about their new love.
So that obsessive checking to see whether he/she called (and then double-checking to make sure your phone’s really working)? Blame it on serotonin.
Combine the effects of increased dopamine and norepinephrine, and reduced serotonin, and you’ll recognise all the symptoms of falling madly in love.
We all know drugs alter your perception, and PEA is no exception. PEA causes the newly-smitten to view the object of his or her affection through thoroughly-rose-coloured glasses. In this loved-up state we idealise our Prince or Princess Charming, magnifying their virtues and explaining away their failings.
This may help explain the oft-reported gap between your perception (“he really is the funniest, smartest, handsomest guy I’ve ever met”), and the puzzled looks of your family and friends.
PEA also encourages couples to idealise their relationship. You and your beloved may ecstatically exclaim you “understand each other completely” and have “never felt this way with anyone else before” – but if you want to be sure, you’ll have to wait until you come down from the high.
Because the effects of PEA wear off as time passes, infatuation tends to fade within 12-18 months. This is probably for the best – though new love is undoubtedly glorious, your body can’t maintain that state of heightened arousal and obsession indefinitely.
The good news is that, though infatuation may fizzle out, long-term romantic love still gives you a rewarding dose of dopamine.
Recent research shows that the dopamine-related brain areas active in the newly-smitten are similarly active in the brains of long-term happily married couples. For these lucky folk, married an average of 21 years, the sight of their partner’s face still brings feelings of intense pleasure.
PEA isn’t only manufactured in the brain. Foods such as chocolate contain loads of it, giving the unlucky-in-love carte blanche to dive head-first into a box of truffles.
Now I’m the first to admit it’s always the right time for chocolate, but if you’re after PEA, you’re looking in the wrong place.
There’s more PEA in cheese and sausages than in chocolate, but they won’t help either. Any PEA you eat is metabolised so quickly that almost none of it makes it to your brain.
If you’re after a natural high, there really is nothing like love.
Dr Annukka Lindell is a Senior Lecturer at the School of Psychological Science at La Trobe University
Dr Annukka Lindell
First published in The Conversation on 14 February, 2012.