It’s that time of year again; it doesn’t matter where you’re shopping, whether it be Walmart or your local arts and crafts store, everywhere you look there is some variation of red and pink hearts, boxes of chocolate, and giant stuffed animals that say “Be Mine.” For some people, Valentine’s Day is a highly anticipated date night, and for others it’s a dreaded day that they’d prefer to spend hiding under a rock. Whether your love life is going swimmingly or it’s completely in shambles, there’s probably a small part of you that wonders: what happens to your brain to make you fall in love?
Dawn Maslar M.S., author of the book Men Chase, Women Choose: The Neuroscience of Meeting, Dating, Losing Your Mind, and Finding True Love gave a TEDx presentation in Boca Raton, Florida. She explains the science of love and gives an inside look into what happens within the brain. The answer has to do with the alteration of brain chemicals. These brain chemicals, known as neurotransmitters, are what cause people to fall in love and — spoiler alert — the chemicals are different in men and women!
Initially, men and women begin the process of falling in love in a very similar way. At the beginning stages of a relationship, when two people start to like each other, the neurotransmitter that plays the biggest role is dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter well known for its role in reward-motivated behavior. In the neuroscience world, dopamine has been strongly associated with addictive behavior. It has been studied in drug related research, as well as in research pertaining to gambling. As Maslar explains, the reason dopamine plays a role in addiction is because it is the neurotransmitter responsible for the feeling of wanting a reward. When we meet someone that we like, we begin to feel excited, and we begin to crave their attention. This wanting feeling is the dopamine flooding our brains and the reward we are craving is the attention from the other person.
Once the initial liking phase is over and both parties are heading towards a deeper level of intimacy, the neurotransmitters responsible for the stage begins to differ between the sexes. The hormone that is responsible for this variation between men and women is testosterone. Testosterone is a hormone found in the bodies of both men and women; however, the levels of testosterone are much higher in men. Maslar explains that the high levels of testosterone in males prevent the neurotransmitter oxytocin from binding to receptors in the male brain. Oxytocin is known as the bonding and trust hormone. In women, this is the hormone that causes them to fall in love with their partner. However, because testosterone levels are so high in men, it blocks oxytocin’s ability to bind with the receptor. When a neurotransmitter cannot bind to a receptor it blocks the neurotransmitter’s ability to affect the brain. Therefore, testosterone is the reason men fall in love differently.
To get clarification on how men fall in love, Maslar turns to an animal study done on prairie voles. In the study, prairie voles were chosen to research love because they are monogamous creatures that breed with the same partner their entire lives. The researchers manipulated neurotransmitters within the brain of the voles and focused on a neurotransmitter chemically similar to oxytocin, called vasopressin. When researchers blocked vasopressin from binding to the receptor, they found that the male prairie vole lost interest in the female vole. This meant that blocking vasopressin made male voles fall out of love.
Although vasopressin could be the same neurotransmitter that causes male humans to fall in love, each animal is different and just because vasopressin causes voles to fall in love, it doesn’t mean it’s the case in humans. Maslar wrote to a head of research at Florida University who confirmed the vole study relates to the human brain, but she begins to wonder if there is more to the story when Tiffany Love from the University of Michigan, claims romantic love in voles in dissimilar to romantic love in humans. Maslar then turns to research conducted by Harvard University.
Harvard University collected testosterone levels in men that were single, in committed relationships and married. The researchers found that testosterone levels were significantly higher in men that were single than men who were in committed relationships and married. There was an obvious correlation between lower levels of testosterone when commitment to a relationship. It is also important to remember that high levels of testosterone was what was preventing the oxytocin to affect the the male brain. Maslar concludes that when men are in a committed relationship, testosterone levels fall enough to allows oxytocin to make men to fall in love. Falling in love due to oxytocin is more similar to the way a female falls in love. The major difference? Commitment.
What do you think? Does commitment play a role in falling in love? Do you think commitment can alter brain chemistry? Let us know in the comment section below!