This post is in response to The Two Qualities Everyone Needs in a Partner by Duana C. Welch

Love, like all human experiences, begins with creating an internal biochemical representation of external stimulus. Love usually starts with a look because sight is the sense humans reliably trust and use the most in assessing things, especially other humans. Sight, like imagination, begins in the occipital lobe (back) of the brain. Like any other visual cue, the information goes from the occipital lobe to the thalamus, which is the cloverleaf for the brain’s information highway. From there, it spreads to a variety of other areas, one of the most important being the medial insula. The medial insula is highly connected to all sensory areas of the brain, and is the reason you get butterflies in your stomach when you see the person you are falling in love with.  The signal then travels to the striatum, the anterior cingulate gyrus, and the nucleus accumbens, which make up the basic parts of the reward/behavior system. These regions are responsible for the passion that accompanies love and creates that euphoric feeling. The anterior cingulate, and the nucleus accumbens, contain high concentrations of dopamine receptors, which are the reason you just cannot get enough of this feeling.

Dopamine is the brain’s feel-good drug of choice and the brain is a dopamine addict constantly on the stroll. The same brain regions activate when you are in love, that activate when you use euphoria-producing drugs. So love has the same euphoria producing addictive qualities as drug addiction. Dopamine is not only linked to love, it is also linked to sex, which is why sex is a feel-good exercise. If sex did not feel good, why would you do it? Take away the feel good and what do you have — a bunch of sweaty, messy nonsense. Take away the euphoria factor in love and you have even less.

Aside: However, if you could remove the dopamine factor from love and sex, it would solve a myriad of political problems. Birth control, abortion and gay marriage would not be issues — if sex and love did not feel good.

Anyway, evolution tricks us into breeding and coupling by making sex and love feel good. Love combines an increase in dopamine with a decrease in another neuro-modulator, serotonin, which multiple studies link to mood. Studies have shown that the early stages of love result in a depletion of serotonin that is similar to the levels commonly found in patients with obsessive-compulsive disorders. This makes perfect sense, because love is an obsession, especially in the early stages when you just cannot think about anything else until he or she calls, texts, or shows up at your door. The early stages of love also increase nerve growth factor. The concentration of nerve growth factor appears to correlate significantly with the intensity of romantic feelings. How poetic, the more in love you are, the more nerve you have — and don’t we all know it. So now we know how it happens in the brain, the next logical question is why we are attracted to a certain type.  

Most people have a type, and thereby more likely to fall in love with a person who fits that ideal. How does our brain create that ideal? Parental influences, cultural norms, genetics, and epigenetic factors shape our perception of Mr. or Ms. Right.

It happens because of the way the brain processes visual stimulus. It starts out in the occipital lobe, is then thrown to the thalamus and spun out to the reward/behavior center and certain sensory hubs as we said earlier. Therefore, you are on a dopamine and sensory sensation high. Then the signal goes to the amygdala, which is located in the heart of the old mammal brain, and responds to fearful situations.

Studies have shown the amygdala deactivates when people see people they love, or watch porn they like. This decrease also happens during male ejaculation and female orgasm. This deactivation implies a lessening of fear. Fear is essential to humans. Fear keeps us from doing things like running across busy freeways at night. Hence, the amygdala’s motto is, “survive now, ask questions later.” The amygdala is a subcortical structure. When this part of the brain reacts, it takes the prefrontal cortex, which is the newer more developed thinking part of the brain, offline. It makes sense. When immediate survival is in question, you want to do, not think.

The individual brain is always more loyal to the individual than it is to the species, whereas the collective brain is more loyal to the species than it is to the individual. The fear of not breeding is a species-wide survival-driven fear and a much deeper instinct in humans than the individual expression of sexual erogenous tendencies. Second to the need to feed, the need to breed is the cardinal human concern. Whether we are homo-erogenous or hetero-erogenous is a complex result of the manner in which individual nature and nurture interdigitate. Thus, it is an individual concern. We are human first, individuals second. However, the individual brain is highly adaptive and constantly consolidates and simplifies information, whereas the collective brain is less dynamic in that regard. So in the case of love, erogenous nature, and the need to breed, it is reasonable to suspect that individual brain consolidation goes something like this: 1) I am human I need to breed, 2) For various reasons I am either more hetero-erogenous or homo-erogenous, 3) Let’s make satisfying number two equal to satisfying number one even if it is not in accordance with biologic reproductive function because doing so decreases stress, which increases my efficiency and translates into greater dopamine rewards — I’m in.

So when falling in love, the individual brain’s adapted fear of not breeding takes precedence over the social fears and moral judgments, which occur in the frontal cortex. That is why a good Mormon boy with homo-erogenous tendencies will follow a drag queen into Hamburger Mary’s on Tranny Bingo Night: the amygdala is deactivated, his normal fears evaporate, and the next thing he knows — it’s O-69…Bingo!

However, there is always a method and motive to madness. The patterns of activation and deactivation in the brain that make love seemingly irrational, serve the biological purpose of uniting unlikely pairs, thereby increasing variability in the species. As the Irish Potato Famine taught us, variability is a key concern in survival. The deep-seated human survival instinct to seek this variability, within the context of individual nature and nurture is what distinguishes Mr. or Ms. Right, from Mr. or Ms. Maybe, and Mr. or Ms. Almost-But-Not-Quite. It is also the reason the only thing worse than being in love is not being in love and why finding Mr. or Ms. Right is not much, but every little thing.

You do not have to search for Mr. or Ms. Right because love will find both of you. The Universe is like the IRS now that the government has computers. It knows exactly where everybody is. You just have to be prepared to recognize Mr. or Ms. Right and be ready to give love and receive love, which is curiously more difficult than it seems it should be. What it comes down to is this: like you know there is a sun, even when the sky is black and crying and you cannot see it, you have to believe in love even if you cannot imagine it, less on feel it.  Most of all you have to trust in the wisdom of the Universe even though you do not understand the what, and the why, of that wisdom. Remain fabulous and phenomenal.

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About the Author

Billi Gordon, Ph.D.

Billi Gordon, Ph.D., is a co-investigator in the Ingestive Behaviors & Obesity Program, Center for the Neurobiology of Stress, David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.

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