Addiction to love is a common refrain among pop artists from Robert Palmer to Ke$ha—and with good reason. Research shows that love, and the intense feelings associated with the experience, has an effect on our brain similar to a drug.
“Love is a cascade of events that makes you feel good,” said Sheryl Hemkin, associate professor of chemistry. “It’s similar to the cascade of events caused by gambling, eating certain foods, or taking drugs.”
Hemkin, who teaches neurochemistry at Kenyon, describes love, in part, as the release of dopamine, known as the “feel-good chemical,” in your brain, where it interacts with receptors and sends signals to other neurons that trigger sensations of pleasure. The higher the levels of dopamine, the higher a person feels—whether falling in love or using an illegal substance like cocaine.
“It all plugs into the same system,” Hemkin explained.
Though dopamine’s role in human affection sounds unromantic, believers in true love should not lose heart. After all, Hemkin added, a brain in lust is very different from a brain in love. “Lust is like a drug, purely a drug in the sense that you just want it because you anticipate that it will make you feel good,” she said. “Love, on the other hand, can reshape how you think about your partner.”
Hemkin cited a study by Lucy Brown, a neurobiologist from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, that scanned the brain activity of people in relationships who reported being “madly in love.” When the subjects looked at pictures of their partners, parts of their brains became more active than when they looked at friends with similar characteristics. “This explains why, when you’re in love, you tend to see your partner as more beautiful, more perfect, than perhaps they really are,” she said.
While dopamine can be activated by as little as a longing gaze, another love chemical, oxytocin, is triggered by physical interaction. “If dopamine makes you feel good, then oxytocin helps you feel more attached to that person,” she said. Known as the “bonding hormone,” it is the same chemical released after childbirth that helps a mother bond with her baby, particularly when breastfeeding.
Oxytocin also has been linked to protecting monogamy. According to a 2012 study published in
That’s encouraging news for committed couples who feel the euphoric effects of dopamine leveling off a few years into their relationships. “After two years of being really excited by seeing your partner, your brain often comes to a new normal,” Hemkin said. “It’s the same with alcohol. If you’re chronically drinking, you tend not to seem as drunk after drinking five beers as someone who goes out and drinks five beers for the first time. Your brain develops a tolerance.”
Does this mean that the drug-like power of dopamine can be blamed for the 40 to 50 percent of American marriages that end in divorce? “It could play a role, sure,” Hemkin said, referring to advice from David Linden, author of The Compass of Pleasure, who recommends mandating a waiting term for marriage. “To make sure that once you come off that intense love high, that you still want to be with that person.”