Conceptually, romantic and maternal love may be seen as very distinct, but it’s easy to see why humans have evolved these emotions: together, they lead to the production and safe-keeping of children – the foundation of species survival. It’s therefore not surprising that the biology of these two emotions involves similar areas of the brain, whilst also incorporating discrete areas that may account for the perceived difference between the two states.
Neurobiology of Love: Reward Systems
The neurochemistry of love involves many areas of the brain, many of which form the brain’s ‘reward system’. Put simply, the ‘reward system’ is the pathway that, when active, allows us to perceive feelings of pleasure and fulfillment. These areas are also associated with addiction and desires, as well as reward, and contain high levels of the neuro-regulator dopamine. Release of dopamine from the hippocampus in the brain is said to trigger a ‘’feel-good’’ state.
Dopamine, alongside oxytocin and vasopressin, is highly associated with romantic love, and is important for both the formation of personal and intimate relationships, as well as being intimately linked to sex itself. Interestingly, increased levels of dopamine are coupled to decreased levels of a different molecule in the brain – serotonin. This depletion of serotonin levels, which is seen in the early stages romantic love, has also been observed in people with obsessive-compulsive disorders, and this might suggest why – particularly in the ‘honeymoon period’ of a relationship – we often seem to be almost obsessed with a partner!
Levels of nerve growth factor are also elevated in the early periods of a relationship, and it has been suggested that higher levels of this molecule correlate to increased intensity of the feelings of love.
Oxytocin and vasopressin are neuro-modulators that, like dopamine, are also produced by the hypothalamus and are stored in the pituitary gland for later release into the blood. These seem to have a role in forming bonds and feelings of attachment to others, particularly in romantic love, and high levels of these are released into the blood stream following orgasm in both men and women. Interestingly, they are also released during child-birth and breast feeding, again showing an interesting link the biology of romantic and maternal love.
Shutting Down Negative Feelings in Love
The hypothalamus itself seems only to be activated during sexual arousal, and this portion of the brain may therefore be responsible for distinguishing between romantic and maternal feelings of love. Sexual arousal and romantic love also appear to be coupled with de-activation of regions of the frontal cortex (the front of the brain), which is largely involved in judgement, and this might explain why individuals might engage in sexual activity that they later regret (presumably after they’ve switched their judgemental frontal cortex back on!).
Increased activity in areas of the brain involved in romantic love also lead to de-activation of a number of other areas of the brain, including the amygdala, parietal cortex and middle temporal cortex. The amygdala is involved in feelings of fear, and its de-activation during feelings of romantic love may well explain why love can make people feel fearless.
Deactivation of other areas in both romantic and maternal love impede feeling negative emotions, prevent formation of critical judgements of others, and can interfere with our ability to distinguish between ourselves and others, which together might explain why we often fail to see flaws in the people we love and can feel an incredibly close sense of unity to a partner or child.
Esch T, & Stefano GB (2005). The Neurobiology of Love. Neuro endocrinology letters, 26 (3), 175-92 PMID: 15990719
Bartels A, & Zeki S (2004). The neural correlates of maternal and romantic love. NeuroImage, 21 (3), 1155-66 PMID: 15006682
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