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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    The chemistry of falling in love

    Savannah Douglas/ The Daily Wildcat
    Savannah Douglas / The Daily Wildcat Jing Hamilton (right), a sophomore in East Asian Studies, and Aui Dubey (left), a computer and science first year graduate student, enjoy the weather on Wednesday outside of Centennial Hall. Hamilton and Dubey have only been dating a few months.

    Love means different things to different people. However, the hormones and neurotransmitters released in the brain in response to that heart-felt sensation is the same.

    The classic symptoms of being hit by Cupid’s arrow — flushed cheeks, a racing heart, sweaty palms, dry mouth, and stomach butterflies — are actually caused by epinephrine, otherwise known as adrenaline.

    The body goes through three stages that contribute to these feelings of “love,” according to Katalin Gothard, a UA associate professor of physiology and neurobiology at the Evelyn F. McKnight Brain Institute.

    Stage One: Infatuation
    Although most wouldn’t consider Facebook stalking your crush as a sign of love, it is an act indicative of a precursor to love: infatuation.

    “Initially there is an infatuation with somebody,” Gothard said. “And at that point there’s a certain level of neurotransmitters and chemicals [released] in the brain that have to do with sexual attraction.”

    The chemical most involved in this stage is dopamine, which encourages the lovestruck to seek sexual reward, Gothard said.

    In other words, dopamine is what gets the relationship going. It drives you to interact with the crush you were stalking. However, the high of being around that person can be eventually lead to something more than infatuation.

    Stage Two: Addiction
    Dopamine re-enters the stage for the second act of falling in love: addiction.

    Love makes us all addicts, or at least it feels like it does when you can’t seem to get enough of that special someone.

    “When the relationship becomes a little deeper, you’re totally focused on this person, every thought is around this person,” Gothard said. “It’s almost like a state of addiction.”

    In addition to dopamine, the other chemicals involved in this stage of attraction include serotonin, which causes feelings of happiness, and norepinephrine, which increases heart rate, Gothard said.

    “Love is a relationship where you can cultivate yourself,” said Alexis Wright, a journalism freshman. Wright and her boyfriend, biology freshman Seth Shaw, have been together for almost six months.

    As relationships get more serious, physiological changes occur within each partner that facilitate the transition into the final phase of love.

    Stage Three: Attachment
    A chemical known as oxytocin plays the leading role in attachment, the finale to the chronicles of love.

    Oxytocin is often nicknamed the “cuddle hormone” because of its ability to deepen bonds between people when they hug and cuddle, said Leslie Becker-Phelps, licensed psychologist and author of “Insecure in Love.”

    “Children who are raised in families where there is warmth and a sense of feeling accepted and loved have more oxytocin available to them because it is being triggered and nurtured,” Becker-Phelps said. “They have that available to them when they meet people later in life.”

    As levels of oxytocin increase in the body, so does a person’s sense of trust, safety and connection, Becker-Phelps said. However, there are also many other factors that play a role in what kind of lover a person will be, she added.

    “When the relationship becomes committed and you have a deep attachment to that person,” Gothard said, “then oxytocin, a hormone of attachment and deep connection, is released.”

    What triggers the body’s response to the feeling of love can be complicated. Mental state, hormone levels and relationship history are just some of the other players in the game of love that spur physiological changes, Gothard said.

    Despite attempts to quantify a phenomenon that is so deeply embedded in the definition of what it means to be human, the idea of love is still very abstract.

    “If they feel in love, they know it,” Becker-Phelps said. “They just feel it.”

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