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The Equation of Love

Updated: Nov 5, 2020

A turn, a look, a breeze or even the smallest hint of someone’s presence. Little things. Why is it that in a split second those small observations make our heads spin, our hearts tremble and make our bodies full of lust? What is it that makes this one person, sometimes even a total stranger, stand out from the world around us? If perceived love or attraction is left unanswered, why does it affect us altogether? Academics have constantly tried to answer these questions throughout the history of time. It is one of the most reviewed yet identifiable subjects known around the world. Maybe the mystery of love can once and for all be solved through basic chemistry. 

From a biological point of view, it is all about the chemical interactions inside our brains when we find something we like. A compiled collection of studies by Dr. Helen Fisher, and others, breaks romantic love down into three subcategories: attraction, lust and attachment. With every category representing its own set of chemicals that have their origin inside the brain. The fundamental framework of evolution is reproduction; passing on genes in order to contribute to the conservation of a certain species. Lust is driven by this innate desire for sexual gratification and subsequently the need to reproduce. Two chemicals that play a role in feelings of lust are testosterone and oestrogen. Both hormones are secreted from the testes and ovaries after stimulation of a specific brain region called the hypothalamus. It increases someone’s libido. Thus, when we find someone sexually exciting, feelings of lust might arise which subsequently set off the desire and longing for this person.  In conclusion, lust is mainly about an intense desire that we feel must be satisfied. 

While lust and attraction might seem one and the same thing, we can lust for something we are attracted to, but one can certainly happen without the other. Attraction is more focussed on the reward system inside our brains. This also explains why the first weeks of a relationship can be so all-consuming. It is for a large extent all about dopamine, a chemical also produced by the hypothalamus and is released whenever we do something that makes us feel good. For instance, while practising your favourite hobby or exercising, but also while having sex or spending time with our loved ones. When high levels of dopamine, and the related hormone norepinephrine, are released during attraction, feelings of euphoria are experienced and might sometimes even lead to a decrease in appetite and insomnia. The related hormone, norepinephrine is a central piece in an individual's fight or flight response. It is elevated after a stressful event occurs and makes us more alert than usual. Next to that, another hormone, serotonin, is decreased when attraction occurs. This substance is known to be involved in mood and appetite and interestingly, people suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder have decreased levels of it. In conclusion, the low levels of serotonin next to the elevated dopamine and norepinephrine create our obsessive craving for being around the subject of our attraction. 

Then, attachment. As opposed to lust and attraction which are mostly exclusive to romantic involvements, attachment can be found in any type of relationship. Think of friendships, parent-infant bonding but also any other social interaction. Two chemicals that are mostly involved in the process of creating attachment are vasopressin and oxytocin. Especially oxytocin, which is widely known for being the ‘cuddle hormone’. It is released during sex or when people snuggle up and can even be found when a mother is breastfeeding her child. All of these activities have one common factor, namely, that it is the precursor of bonding. What is important here is that attachment makes the distinction with the other two subcategories much clearer. Attachment also occurs within family bonds, social relationships and friendship. This does not necessarily involve the chemical interactions that occur when experiencing lust or attraction. 

So, is the equation of love just the sum of a combination of three different chemical pathways: lust, attraction and attachment? Not necessarily. The rosy picture of love is actually often accompanied by feelings of jealousy, irrationality, erratic behaviour and sometimes physical pain. Some even experience physical pain in the chest or heart area as a consequence of the emotional stress caused by a traumatic breakup. The collection of previously mentioned chemicals is, according to science, also responsible for this downside of love. For instance, the reward pathway involving dopamine is in charge of controlling both positive and negative emotions. Dopamine is actually intensely investigated in addictive behaviour. Areas of the brain that light up when feeling attracted are in the same way affected when someone is exposed to drugs such as cocaine, or even binge eating their favourite snack. The cocaine rush stimulates the signalling pathway for much longer than would actually naturally occur when feeling attracted. Leading to a temporarily ‘high’ or overstimulation. More interestingly, studies show that the same brain regions react when someone becomes addicted to material goods as when we become emotionally dependent.  

In conclusion, attraction can be seen as a form of addiction focussed towards another human being. Also, oxytocin bears a similar story. Recent studies indicate that certain party drugs which increase oxytocin levels, among other things, to an unnatural level might lead to the user dissociating from their environment and act reckless. Thus, too much of a good thing can be bad. Biologically speaking, love can be defined or explained by a complex equation of chemical interactions, but I am still hoping it is more than that. For me, love comes and goes in very different ways, but all embraced equally. 

At times, love is the thing that gets you up in the morning and keeps you going. But there are also times that it makes you never want to wake up at all. In the end, everyone is capable of defining what love is for themselves. Either way, if the equation of love would mainly be defined through science, this also means that each of us can have “chemistry” with just about anyone, right? 

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