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Photo Credit: the accidental bokeh heart., originally uploaded by Disco ♥ Tetris.

It has been documented that being in love is akin to being on cocaine. Both the emotion of love and cocaine bathe our brains in similar neurotransmitters which make us feel elated and giddy. One can hardly deny that love is a prolific muse, spawning innumerable songs, poems, stories, works of art, and even criminal behavior. Love can be a delicious torment.

Let’s take a look at the biochemical orchestration of love. Falling in love incites a flood of neurotransmitters including dopamine, norepinephrine, and PEA (Phenylethylamine), which has been crowned the “molecule of love”. PEA is also found in chocolate; but it seems that the PEA is broken down by the stomach enzymes before it can enter the central nervous system circulation. Norepinephrine causes our heart rate to soar, our palms to get sweaty, and our blood pressure to rise. All of the thrilling sensations which occur when we are in close proximity to our crush. Dopamine closely regulates mood and drive. PEA makes us feel omnipotent, giddy, and infatigueable. The thought of the beloved is able to ferry us through our day and activities. Food, rest, and drinks become subsidiary in our lives. PEA also causes us to idealize the beloved; we are blind to their faults and shortcomings.

Helen Fisher, an anthropologist specializing in love biology, from Rutgers University did a study where she showed people a picture of their beloved and then did a functional MRI scan on them. The areas which lit up in the brain were the dopamine rich areas in the brain. Dopamine is the hormone involved in motivation, rewards, and goal-oriented behavior. It suggests that falling in love stimulates motivational and goal-oriented behavior in hopes of obtaining the beloved (reward).

PEA is not a permanent neurotransmitter. Its excretion ceases after 3-5 years. If such is the case, how do couples stay together? Long-term relationships are immersed in nurturing, attachment, and security. The interaction of two other hormones becomes important. Levels of oxytocin, also known as the “bonding” hormone, increase as do levels of vasopressin. Oxytocin is released during orgasm and cuddling. Vasopressin stimulates monogamous behavior. In a study of male voles, after injection with vasopressin the male voles became territorial and showed exclusive interest in a single female. They also displayed aggressive and jealous behavior to other males.

Love can be dissected into a series of biochemical reactions, but we all know that it is mostly magic…

Happy Valentine’s Day!!



  1. Journal of Neurophysiology
  2. Evolutionary Cognitive Neuroscience
  3. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society: Biological Sciences


1 Comment »

  Lexi wrote @ March 18th, 2010 at 1:34 am

People can also die from something that seems like heart break, ie when a spouse dies . . .

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