By Jennifer Kelton
Oxytocin is a peptide of nine amino acids that was, until recently, thought only to induce labor, lactation and bonding between a mother and child. Now it is believed to be instrumental in attachment between romantic partners as well. It is secreted by the pituitary gland, stimulating the brain and reproductive glands of both men and women.
Dr. Theresa Crenshaw, in her book The Alchemy of Love and Lust, calls oxytocin “hormonal superglue.” When loved ones come in physical contact from family and friends to romantic partners oxytocin is released, connecting people with every caress or cuddle. As the initial lust-inducing chemicals wear off, oxytocin keeps us together.
Phenylethylamine is a neurotransmitter and naturally occurring amphetamine that stimulates increasing feelings of excitement.“This violent emotional disturbance that we call infatuation (or attraction) may begin with a small molecule called phenylethylamine, or PEA. Known as the excitant amine, PEA is a substance in the brain that causes feelings of elation, exhilaration, and euphoria.” PEA transports via neurons through all sectors of the brain giving the sensation of overwhelming joy.
Pheromones are naturally occurring chemicals believed to be produced by the apocrine glands and transmitted by scent between animals of the same species, including humans. This allows a subliminal communication of bonding and attraction.
Serotonin is another neurotransmitter that affects mood and attraction, but this one behaves a little differently. High levels of serotonin are associated with happy feelings, while low levels are believed to cause depression, affecting appetite and sex drive. Dr. Fisher explains, “As well as high [levels of] dopamine and norepinephrine, romantic love is characterized by low serotonin. Low serotonin would explain the obsessive thinking attached to romantic love.”
Vasopressin is the male counterpart to oxytocin, produced by the brain as well as male and female sex organs. Both chemicals are released during sexual stimulation and are believed to trigger feelings of comfort and trust. “At orgasm, vasopressin levels dramatically increase in men, oxytocin levels rise in women.”
Stages of Love Along with a team of top scientists, Dr. Fisher has done vast amounts of research on love and human chemistry. By performing MRI brain scans on people who are deeply in love, she and her colleagues established that when you fall in love, certain parts of the brain are flooded with blood, proving that passion is hardwired into our brains by millions of years of evolution.
Modern human romance can feel like a rollercoaster ride. When in love, feelings triggered by these chemicals “have the ability to override the part of your brain that governs rational thought,” Fisher explains. It is entirely chemical, and often acts like addiction.“Virtually all drugs of abuse affect a single pathway in the brain…activated by dopamine. Romantic love stimulates the same pathway with the same chemical.” Therefore, when our bodies and brains go for that ride, we want to go again and again.
The first stage of love is lust, according to Dr. Fisher, which is marked by high levels of testosterone and estrogen in both sexes. “Lust evolved to get you out looking for anything.” Our bodies’ natural drives to mate and procreate send us out on the prowl.
To be continued.