love is a drug

Psychology of Love – Part 8

Scientists have known for a long time that brain chemistry is behind our sexual urges. But the mysteries of love have generally been left to writers, poets and musicians. Roxy Music and Leighton Meester have serenaded us with songs about love being a drug, and Robert Palmer was ‘Addicted to love’. While these notions of love might appear excessively romantic, neuro-science has proved that, Elvis was correct, we really ‘can’t help falling in love’.

Recent research suggests that love is a biologically driven, like hunger or sex, over which we might have little control. This view of romantic attraction rests on findings by scientists studying the human brain using magnetic resonance imaging. A study, in which men and women were shown pictures of their romantic partner and a friend, revealed unique brain patterns when they were looking at their lovers. This type of research has found that different chemicals are produced by our brains when we are ‘in love’ to those that are produced when we are ‘in lust’.

Most people accept that you can be ‘in love’ with one person and still be sexually attracted to another – even if it is only a fantasy. The sex drive (libido or lust) is characterised by a craving for sexual gratification and is associated primarily with androgens (estrogens and testosterone). When middle-aged men and women were given testosterone to increase sexual desire they had more sexual thoughts and higher levels of sexual activity, but they did not report any feelings of romantic passion or increased attachment to their partners.

Whereas, the love drive – associated with states of euphoria, physical arousal, increased energy, heightened attention, sleeplessness, anxiety and loss of appetite – has been linked to dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin. Being in love can produce the same high as some recreational drugs and that we can become ‘addicted to love’ is likely to be the result of increased dopamine since this chemical has been linked to cravings and addiction.

All these chemicals provide a roller-coaster ride that Katie Melua sang ‘is the closest thing to crazy I have ever been’. Few of us would deny that love makes people crazy, but most of us wouldn’t expect to be certified as insane. Yet some scientists have likened ‘this crazy thing called love’ to some clinical disorders that have similar changes in brain chemistry.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is characterised by repeated behaviours, intrusive thoughts and low levels of serotonin – just like love. In the film ‘As Good As It Gets’, Jack Nicholson portrays a man with obsessive-compulsive behaviour who falls in love. We see him obsessed with behaviours such as repeatedly washing his hands, locking his door and compelled to eat at the same restaurant, insisting on the same waitress. Although ‘love’ is not categorised as a clinical illness, during the highs and lows of falling in love, people display similar behaviours and changes in brain chemistry to those with obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Most people in love might not be obsessed with cleanliness or security, but many have reported that they think about their lovers for over 85% of their waking hours. This type of persistent one-track thinking is symptomatic of obsessive-compulsive disorder, but not generally considered by the ‘sufferer’ of love as irrational. At least, those with OCD know that their behaviour is irrational, even though they can’t stop doing it.

Another clinical condition that has been compared to love is cyclothymia – a bipolar disorder similar to manic-depression. It has been suggested that ‘great romantics are people suffering cyclothymia – falling truly-madly-deeply in love during periods of intense excitement. Unfortunately, the euphoria inevitably fades when melancholy sets in. Studies have revealed that love’s chemistry, specifically serotonin, produces a soothing effect on the brain. Too little has been linked to aggression, depression, anxiety, love and increased sexuality. Since alcohol appears to deplete serotonin and low levels could be responsible for reduced inhibitions, it would be wise to choose your taverns carefully.

For people ‘in love’, the effects of these ‘attraction chemicals’ don’t last long. When the first flush of love turns into a long-term relationship, they are replaced by a chemical cocktail made up of the neuropeptides, oxytocin and vasopressin. This mix is believed to be responsible for producing feelings of security and emotional bonding. But even these ‘commitment chemicals’ may last only long enough for people to tolerate each other in order to reproduce, which could provide an excellent rational (or excuse) for the seven-year itch.

But, if love is a type of madness induced by our own brain chemistry, then what is the cure? Since love can be more powerful that any designer drug – producing feelings similar to amphetamines and cocaine – it would appear that abstinences is the only cure. But, a life without love would be very sad indeed.

While we can’t measure our brain chemistry each time that we fall in love, perhaps the best we can do is to try to recognise the symptoms of this temporary madness. Below is a list of symptoms that might help you decide if what are experiencing is the temporary insanity of love.

Symptoms of Falling in Love

• Feeling your partner is unique
• Focusing on the their positive qualities and ignoring their flaws
• Obsessively thinking about your partner
• Experiencing responses like:

  • o Exhilaration
  • o Euphoria
  • o Increased energy
  • o Sleeplessness
  • o Loss of appetite
  • o Trembling
  • o A pounding heart, accelerated breathing
  • o Anxiety, panic, despair
  • o Rapid mood changes
  • o Listlessness
  • o Brooding  

Dr. Lori Boul gained her PhD at the University of Sheffield in the UK and the research for her thesis, into ‘male menopause’, attracted worldwide media attention. Dr Lori is probably one of the most outspoken speakers on the topic of human sexuality and in writing her book DIY Sex and Relationship Therapy has dared to challenge the need for face-to-face therapy. According to Dr Lori, “Good therapists can be hard to find and for many people a good spoonful of common sense is all that is needed”.

Whether speaking to the general public or professionals, Dr Lori’s expertise, sensitivity and humour inspire new ways of thinking about relationships, sex and psychology. She has presented talks at national and international conferences, provides training courses and executive mentoring, and is featured as a regular guest speaker with Cunard. 

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