Passion, elation, obsession, euphoria — the heady emotions we associate with falling head over heels are initiated not in the heart, but in the brain. Falling in love is a mind-body experience, from sweaty palms and a racing heart to the rush of emotions that leave the victims of Cupid’s arrow feeling intoxicated. And research has found that our brains benefit both from the heady throes of falling into a new love and the steady glow of longtime love.
If being in love sounds stressful, there’s a good reason, says Richard S. Schwartz, associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. The physiological responses are triggered by the release of cortisol, the hormone famous for the body’s flight-or-fight reaction, which fuels both passion and anxiety.
At the same time, some brain chemicals dip. “Surprisingly, serotonin goes down in the early stages of love,” Schwartz says. “That’s usually associated with a kind of discontent. It can cause an obsessional preoccupation with the one you love and not being able to get that person out of your mind.”
Yet levels of other feel-good neurotransmitters rise. In fact, imaging studies of the brain show that when people are in love, looking at pictures of their beloved lights up the dopamine-rich pleasure and reward centers of the brain.
There’s a good reason that love acts like an addictive drug on the brain. “In evolutionary terms, the reward system keeps us going as a species,” Schwartz explains. “It fuels attachment for procreation.”
To find out how long-term romance affects the brain, read What Love Does to Your Brain at AARP's Staying Sharp.
This content is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to provide any expert, professional or specialty advice or recommendations. Readers are urged to consult with their medical providers for all questions.