Have you ever stopped to think about why you’re falling in love with that special someone? Why do your heart thud and your stomach flutter with butterflies when you think about that person? Could it just be some sort of unexplainable force of nature, this abstract concept of love? Well today, you’re in for a ride, because I’m going to explain love in terms of chemistry. And I’m not talking about the “chemistry” between you and your longtime crush. I’m talking about the science of chemistry. That’s right: there’s science behind love and romantic attraction.
Well, first off, why are we even attracted to the people we’re attracted to? Are we simply at the mercy of our own subconscious? One theory dives into evolution to explain the science behind romantic attraction. It explains that perhaps humans are looking to mate with somebody with the best genes. After all, we’re all just in a battle for the “survival of the fittest,” right? So when we’re gauging a potential mate, we’re looking to see if they have good, healthy genes to pass on to our children (3).
But how do we choose these potential mates? Well, the most obvious answer is the appearance. If a woman has perfect facial symmetry and an hourglass figure, they’ll most likely be sought after by a lot of men (3). But humans aren’t just looking at the physical attractiveness of a person to gauge their romantic interest. Recent studies show that what people desire is a mate that looks like their parents. Cognitive psychologist David Perrett suggests that we find our own faces attractive because they remind us of the faces we looked at constantly in our early childhood years—Mom and Dad (3).
After you become romantically attracted to someone, you may start to develop love for that person. According to a study led by anthropology professor Helen Fisher conducted at Rutgers University, there are three stages of falling in love: lust, attraction, and attachment. Each stage is categorized by their unique set of chemical hormones stemming from the brain (2).
When you’re in the “lust” stage, you feel physically attracted to the object of your affection. Lust is driven by the desire for sexual gratification (2). This sexual gratification is driven by a need to reproduce. Going back to the aforementioned evolutionary theory of romantic attraction, humans are looking to mate with somebody with the best genes, which they will want to pass on to their offspring through reproduction. The hypothalamus in the brain plays a huge role in the chemical basis of lust, stimulating the sex hormones testosterone and estrogen from the testes and ovaries. These hormones increase sexual motivation in males and females (4).
The second stage is “attraction.” During this stage, you begin to obsess over your lover and crave their presence (2). This is also when the thudding heart and sweaty palms come into play. In this stage, you feel energized and excited about your romantic lover. Three chemicals are the key players behind this stage: dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. Dopamine is released when we do things that feel good to us (i.e. having sex). An increase in this hormone is associated with motivation and reward, explaining our desire to pursue a loved one. Norepinephrine is associated with the fight or flight response, and it is responsible for your thudding heart and sweaty palms when you see your lover. Additionally, and intriguingly, the attraction seems to lead to a decrease in serotonin, which controls appetite and mood (4). Basically, you can be so in love that you can’t eat or even sleep.
The final stage of love is “attachment.” Attachment is a longer lasting commitment and is the bond that keeps couples together when they go on to have children (2). Basically, this is when you and your lover move onto a deeper level of love and understanding (1). Dopamine eventually gets replaced by the hormones oxytocin and vasopressin, which create the desire to bond, affiliated with, and nurture your partner. Oxytocin is released in large quantities during sex, breastfeeding, and childbirth (4). The fact that it is released both during orgasm and childbirth may explain why sex is thought to bring couples closer together (2). Vasopressin promotes long-lasting attachment among mates. Its role was revealed through the study of prairie voles. When male prairie voles were given a drug that suppresses vasopressin, they began neglecting their partners (2).
Looking back, maybe love isn’t so abstract at all. Maybe there really is a simple formula to love consisting of lust, attraction, and attachment. Maybe it’s all just chemistry and science and there’s really nothing we can do about it. But however you think, love is all really up to you. In the end, you are the only person who can define your choices in love. So if you really want to, maybe you should say hi to that longtime crush of yours.
- “Why We Fall in Love: The Science of Love.” Examined Existence, Brain Health | Personal Development | Fitness News and Reviews, 2017, examinedexistence.com/why-we-fall-in-love-the-science-of-love/.
- Greenberg, Melanie. “The Science of Love and Attachment.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 30 Mar. 2016, http://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-mindful-self-express/201603/the-science-love-and-attachment.
- Science, BBC. “BBC Science | Human Body & Mind | Science of Love.” BBC, BBC, http://www.bbc.co.uk/science/hottopics/love/.
- Wu, Katherine. “Love, Actually: The Science behind Lust, Attraction, and Companionship.” Science in the News, Harvard University, 14 Feb. 2017, sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2017/love-actually-science-behind-lust-attraction-companionship/.