This is your brain on love

Nicole Hennessy

Professors explain the science behind the emotion

Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, who is said to have risen from sea foam, was the mother of Cupid, who graces all types of celebratory Valentine’s Day paraphernalia. The god of sexual love and beauty, Cupid, shoots arrows at people to inspire romantic feelings in them.

But falling in love isn’t always a mythological tale. The euphoria felt in the beginning of relationships is “probably a whole set” of chemicals being released in the brain, said Eric Mintz, associate professor of biological sciences. “The fact that it makes you feel good — that’s real.”

The reality is the tangibility of these chemicals.

“Just like a drug may affect things like decision making (and) impulsivity — obviously being in love can affect those things too,” Mintz said. “Ergo the phrase, people do really stupid things when they’re in love. You gotta remember that the body and the brain has its own built-in drugs.”

These “drugs,” such as dopamine, allow each experience people have to shape them and their understanding of reality each time they make a new memory, fall in love or experience emotional trauma.

“There are changes in the brain that go with social interaction,” Mintz said. “The brain is capable of rewiring itself; it’s not like all of a sudden something starts growing in the brain that wasn’t there before. The brain kind of changes the way things are connected together so the wiring gets changed, but the things that are getting wired don’t.”

Love and reality don’t always go together, especially when monogamy is involved. While for humans this concept is a sociological and often cultural norm, few other mammals practice it.

“There are a number of mammals that are monogamous, but the general rule is not. Birds are much more likely to show monogamy than mammals are, but what’s important to understand about monogamy is that in the animal world, monogamy is not equivalent to what humans call faithful,” Mintz said.

“The classic example is the love bird. You can see that a pair forms bonds, they stay together for life, they build a nest together, they raise their chicks together, but genetics has allowed us to say — well, is this really true? And the answer is, well it’s true to some extent, they do form pair bonds, they do mate for life, so to speak. “They also cheat.”

While Mintz said both humans and animals feel things like fear and something akin to love, a human’s brain is larger than an animal’s, and thus, more complex.

“The thing that distinguishes humans from other animals, in terms of (brain) structure is the size of the cortex, the outer part of the brain,” he said. “That’s where we think our self-awareness comes from, our ability to be rational about things. Strong emotions do not come from that part of the brain. They come from older, more primitive structures in the brain.”

Emotions are not learned behaviors; they are deeply woven into our biology, but Mintz admitted there is a lot people do get conditioned to when it comes to choosing a mate.

“(When falling in love) you’re compelled; you’re drawn to something. It’s very emotionally seated, and certainly your emotions are seated in your genetics,” said Heather Caldwell, assistant professor of biological sciences. “But how those manifest is also a function of your environment.”

Contact features reporter Nicole Hennessy at [email protected].