by Ean Jury
When asked about what it means to fall in love, people often respond with the cliché, “it’s all a matter of chemistry.” Despite the generalization, they’re not wrong. In fact, scientific research shows that feelings of love produce unique chemical responses in the human brain.
According to a recent study by Dixie Meyer, assistant Professor of Medical Family Therapy at St. Louis University School of Medicine, there are three stages of love: romantic attraction, lust, and attachment. Each stage is driven by different chemicals and hormones.
Stage 1: Romantic Attraction
Meyer argues that the first and most short-lived component of love is romantic attraction. Considered the falling-in-love stage, “this category is known for feelings of euphoria, obsessive thinking, increased energy, concentrated focus on the beloved, and emotional need for the loved one,” Meyer said.
This stage is associated with increased levels of the neurochemical stimulants dopamine and norepinephrine, as well as decreased levels of serotonin.
According to Dr. Fred Harchelroad, former toxicologist at Allegheny General Hospital, dopamine and norepinephrine are responsible for the human reward system. “This system is responsible for motivating our behavior toward people we love,” he said. “The reward system of the brain encourages repeated behaviors, but only when the behaviors are rewarded with a positive response.”
Though it’s explicit in learning and motivation, the reward system also produces feelings of satisfaction. In other words, since sex is one of life’s greatest pleasures, scientists believe dopamine and norepinephrine are responsible for our initial sex drive.
Stage 2: Lust
This stage of love involves sex drive and sexual arousal. When these urges occur, they activate the hypothalamus region of the brain. The hypothalamus, one of three pleasure centers in the brain, regulates hormones and is responsible for the release of androgens (i.e. testosterone) and estrogens. Within both sexes, testosterone is connected with heightened sexual desire and interest. For females, more specifically, certain estrogens like progesterone increase sexual interest.
“When the brain releases these hormones, our heart rate elevates temporarily and we experience a sudden rush of sexual desire,” Dr. Harchelroad said. This “adrenaline rush” results in an increased yearning for sexual activity.
Stage 3: Attachment
The final phase of love, which many researchers argue is the most difficult to maintain, is linked with longterm commitment. Accompanied by feelings of calmness, security, and connection, this stage involves two neuropeptides that affect bonding between romantic partners.
According to Meyers, “Vasopressin and oxytocin are the two hormones thought to produce feelings of comfort, safety, and attachment.”
Oxytocin, for example, often labeled the “cuddle hormone,” is released by the hypothalamus during orgasm and during moments of massaging and caressing. It is theorized that the release of this hormone deepens feelings of attachment between couples by making them feel closer to one another after they have had sex. In addition, the effects of oxytocin can result in feelings of contentment and reductions in anxiety whenever we are around people we love.
Vasopressin also plays a significant role in creating bonds of attachment between couples. “After orgasm, our body releases both vasopressin and oxytocin, which produce feelings of intimacy or closeness,” said Dr. Harchelroad. “Enduring elevations of these hormones are associated with continued attachment in long-term relationships.” In other words, they’re the chemicals of lasting love.