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What is this thing called love?

Scientists say it isn't made in heaven. You might want to check the chemistry lab.

Published February 13, 2007


Love, it turns out, is a postgraduate course in body chemistry.

The chemicals that race around in our brain when we're in love serve several purposes, but the primary goal is the continuation of our species. Once we have children, those chemicals change, to encourage us to stay together to rear those children.

We exhibit three stages of love:

- Lust, or erotic passion

- Attraction, or romantic passion

- Attachment, or commitment

When all three of these happen with the same person, a very strong bond is formed. Sometimes, however, the one we lust after isn't the one we're in love with.

When we're teenagers, just after puberty, the hormones estrogen and testosterone become active and create desire, a.k.a. lust, which will play a role throughout our lives.

According to one theory, lust evolved for the purpose of sexual mating, while romantic love evolved to meet the need for infant/child bonding. So, even though we often experience lust for our romantic partner, sometimes we don't - and that's okay.

Though lust keeps us "looking around," it is our desire for romance that leads us to the stage of love called attraction.

Love potion No. 9

When attraction, or romantic passion, occurs, we often lose our ability to think rationally. We may be oblivious to flaws our partner might possess.

In this stage, couples spend many hours getting to know each other. If this attraction remains strong and is felt by both, the people usually enter the third stage of love: attachment.

Attachment, or commitment, has to be strong enough to withstand problems and distractions. Again, chemicals are involved: Playing a key role in the attachment stage of love are oxytocin, vasopressin and endorphins, which are released during sex.

A lot of chemicals surge through your brain and body when you're in love. Estrogen and testosterone play roles in the sex drive. Without them, we might never venture into the "real love" arena.

That initial giddiness that comes when we're first falling in love includes a racing heart, flushed skin and sweaty palms. Researchers say these are caused by the dopamine and norepinephrine our bodies are releasing:

- Dopamine is thought to be the "pleasure chemical," producing a feeling of bliss. It is associated with euphoria, craving and addiction.

- Norepinephrine is similar to adrenaline and produces the racing heart and excitement. It heightens attention, short-term memory, hyperactivity and sleeplessness.

Together, it is believed, these chemicals produce elation, intense energy, craving, loss of appetite and focused attention.

Researchers have also discovered that people in love have lower levels of serotonin, and also that neural circuits associated with the way we assess others are suppressed - possibly explaining why those in love "obsess" about their partner.

In romantic love, when two people have sex, the hormone oxytocin is released, which helps bond the relationship. When it is released during orgasm, oxytocin begins creating an emotional bond - the more sex, the greater the bond.

Endorphins, the body's natural painkillers, also play a key role in long-term relationships: They produce a general sense of well-being, including the feelings of being soothed, peaceful and secure.

Like dopamine and norepinephrine, endorphins are released during sex.

The feelings of passionate love, however, do lose their strength over time. Studies have shown that passionate love fades quickly and is nearly gone after two or three years.

This results in your being able to see your lover rationally, rather than through the blinding hormones of infatuation and passion.


This article is reprinted with permission from the Web site

Fast Facts:


Law of attraction

We all have a template for the ideal partner buried in our subconscious. This "love map" helps decide which person in a crowded room catches our eye.

Many researchers have speculated that we tend to go for members of the opposite sex who remind us of our parents - and of ourselves - because of the person's personality, sense of humor, likes and dislikes, etc. But there is evidence we also look for someone who looks like us.

A Scottish psychologist conducted an experiment in which he morphed a digitized photo of his subject's own face into a face of someone of the opposite sex. Then, the researcher had the test subject select from a series of photos the person he or she found most attractive.

This experiment's subjects always preferred the morphed version of their own face (but they didn't recognize it).

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[Last modified February 13, 2007, 06:47:10]

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