Love is one of the great mysteries of life. What is it? What causes it? To some love is the ultimate feeling. Poets, novelists, and artist all inspire their art in the search for an understanding of love. If you ask a neuroscientist, they might tell you love is a simple cocktail of chemicals. A significant amount of neurotransmitters are at work when we fall in love. It takes the human brain anywhere from 90 seconds to four minutes to determine whether it is beginning to fall in love or not. According to Helen Fisher of Rutgers University, there are three stages of falling in love, lust, attraction, and attachment with each stage a different hormone is involved.
The first stage is lust. Lust is driven by strong sexual desire and feelings towards another. The feeling of lust is instigated by the release of two sexual hormones from the hypothalamus in the brain Those two sex hormones are estrogen and testosterone. These two hormones tend to be classified by “male” and “female” but researchers have found that testosterone and estrogen play a role in both males and females. In an almost caveman-like fashion, both men and women will highlight their levels of testosterone and estrone to show their fertility and ability to attract a mate.
The first time I saw The Lab Partner outside of the lab was at his job at a local restaurant that so happened to be my favorite. My friends had never been there before, unbeknownst to us he was working that night. My body froze when I laid eyes on him. He was wearing a black polo that hugged his back muscle in all the right ways. I briefly imagined my hands tracing down that back, leaving my marks. The Lab Partner told him that he enjoyed rock climbing, from the shape of his body I could tell. My friend elbowed me to stop my gawking. When he saw me, he gave me a wide smile and that made my body vibrate. We sat down, he took our order. Strangely, after he took our order he didn’t leave but rather struck up a conversation with us. He mentioned that his birthday was the other day so I wished him a happy birthday. He told me about this pizza place in town that he went to for his birthday dinner.
“They make their pizza in brick ovens. Also, their wine is imported directly from Italy” he gushed animatedly. “Wow, I love brick ovens!” I responded, perhaps a tad too enthusiastically. He laughed and for a moment I forgot my friends were there. After he brought our food, he came over to ask about our food and refill our water more times than a normal waiter should but I didn’t mind.
After we paid the bill, I lingered.
“So about that pizza place?” The Lab Partner said.
“Do you think you would wanna go? With me?” I smiled.
“Yeah, I think I would”
“Great, see you in lab, partner” he winked at me before returning to his job. My vagina was doing somersaults.
Stage two is attraction. Lust and attraction can occur together. For example, you can lust over someone you are attracted to and vice versa. However, attraction is a different, distinct phenomenon. Attraction contains a pathway in the brain that triggers the “reward” response. Love is the reward. In this stage, the brain releases dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. Dopamine is released when we do things that feel good like having sex or being with family. This neurotransmitter makes us feel energetic, giggly, and elated. Norepinephrine is commonly referred to as adrenaline, released during a fight or flight response. This is where we feel our heart race, our palms sweaty, and butterflies in our stomachs. Serotonin diverts our attention and makes us think nonstop about the person we are falling for. This neurotransmitter consumes our minds with thoughts and images of that particular person.
Despite my confident demeanor, I felt nervous. First dates have never been my thing. I hated small talk, I rather just jump to the good stuff like your childhood trauma or the last time you felt depressed. Yet, here I was sitting in the passenger of my roommate’s car as she drove me to the restaurant. I didn’t have my car in college and she very graciously offered to be my mode of transportation, saving me a 30-minute walk. I picked at that the flap of skin on my thumb. The Lab Partner texted me that he was already inside with our seats. I wiped my palms on the back of my tights, I felt as though my turtleneck sweater tighten around my throat. I looked at my roommate who smiled kindly and said “Have fun” as I exited her car. “Thanks,” I said. He smiled that sweet boyish smile of his, I felt my cheeks blush. He had just come rock climbing. His gear was parked in the seat next to him, a bag overflowing with ropes and cables. He still wore his Under Armor shirt and leggings. I felt overdressed in my skirt and sweater, maybe I should have shown up in my yoga gear. He noticed I was staring at his appearance. “Oh yeah, sorry I meant to go home and change before coming here but I didn’t get the time.” The Lab Partner said looking down, slightly embarrassed.
“No no it’s okay, I was just thinking how I feel overdressed,” I said.
“Nah, you look perfect” there I go blushing again. We sat down.
“So what do you wanna do with anatomy?”
“I wanna go to medical school,” I said. “What about you? What are your hopes and dreams?” He laughed.
“I can see that”
“Cause you know, you’re so…fit” He laughed again, I liked making him laugh. After the initial awkwardness died down, the conversation flowed like the wine we were drinking. We shared a cheese pizza because we both agreed that pizza is perfect and doesn’t need to be bogged down with too many toppings. At the end of the evening, he walked me to the bus stop. We embraced. I could smell his cologne mixed with his sweat. “We should do this again” he whispers into my ear. His wine-scented breath ran chills up my spine. “Yeah that would be fun” I responded. I texted my roommate to come to pick me up. Maybe the first dates weren’t so bad.
Stage three is attachment. Attachment is an aspect of long-term relationships whether that be parent-child, friendships, and of course romantic. The two hormones in this stage are oxytocin and vasopressin. Oxytocin has become synonymous with the “cuddle hormone” as it is a key player in forming social connections and strong bonds with others. It is primarily released during sex, breastfeeding, and childbirth. All activities require a form of bonding with its which a romantic partner or mother to child. While vasopressin is an anti-diuretic that works with your kidney to control thirst it can also provide stability in a relationship.
We did go out again. And again. He told me after one of our dates he wasn’t looking for anything serious since he was so focused on school. I thought to myself that was respectable since we both wanted to go onto higher degrees. I did want a relationship but I also didn’t want to lose him so I decided I would play it cool. Let me decide the relationship on his terms and I would be along for the ride. After a few months of hanging out, I invited him to my friend’s birthday party. It was going to be at someone’s house and there would be alcohol if he wanted to come. He said that would love to come but that we should arrive separately. I told him that was no problem since I was going early to help set up anyways.
I kept looking at the door each time it opened. The disappointment on my face was evident. “Come on,” my friend said to me linking her arm through mine. “Let’s get you properly drunk and you’ll forget the whole thing” as she poured me a shot. “It’s my birthday I will not have you crying at my birthday. The only person allowed to cry is me, ok?” I nodded my head as she poured me another shot. I started to lose count of how many shots I took but I felt warm and bubbly on the inside so I knew it was working. We sat around a table playing King’s Cup, I was chugging down the King’s Cup when The Lab Partner walked in. We locked eyes over the ginormous cup as alcohol trickled down my chin. I finished and wiped my chin with the back of my hand. There was nothing sexy about it but I tried. “You came,” I said.
“Yeah sorry about being late, I had to help my roommate with something” I waved him off and he laughed. “How many have you had?”
“Enough to know that you need to catch up” I grabbed his hand and dragged him to the bar. We took more shots together and played more drinking games. Throughout the evening, he kept touching me. Public displays of affection were not his thing I could count on one hand how often he held my hand or touched my back. We haven’t even had sex yet. We’ve kissed and done other PG-13 things but not sex. I wondered if tonight would be the night. If it was I would have to tell him something first.
“Do you wanna get out of here?” The Lab Partner whispered in my ear. His breath swirled with alcohol. I nodded. Like two love-struck teenagers, we ran down the street, holding hands, and giggling uncontrollably. His house wasn’t too far away. We burst through the front door, he put his finger to his mouth. His roommates were probably sleeping. We crept into his bedroom. I took a deep breath, I knew what was coming next. He got on top of me and the kissing started. I have to tell him I thought. There’s no way I can just pretend, it’ll be obvious I thought. His hand started exploring parts of my body. In my haze, I didn’t want it to stop but I wanted to be truthful. “Hey” I whispered, sitting up a bit. “I have to tell you something first”. He reluctantly looked up at me, his pupils were huge. “I’m a virgin,” I said slowly. He sat back on his knees and removed his hand from my body. Suddenly, I felt cold. “Oh…that’s surprising since your so old”
“I’m not old, I’m 20,” I said. The silence was long. “But this doesn’t change anything I just wanted to let you know in case we need to lay a towel down or something.” I reached for him again, he pulled back.
“Yeah, I don’t know if I can do this” He raked his hand through his hair.
“What do you mean?” I said.
“I don’t fuck virgins” The harshness of his word, shocked me. “I’ll walk you home” The whole walk home, no one said a word.
“Thanks for walking me home,” I said. He nodded in response. “So that’s it then?”
“I’m sorry,” He said.
“Okay” What was gonna say? There was nothing I could do. “I guess I’ll see you in lab”
“Yeah” He turned to walk home.
What the fuck??!? That was all I could think.
The hormones that provide us with that rosy, picture-perfect image of love are also responsible for the negative side of love. The dopamine pathway is attributed to addiction. The region of the brain that lights up when we are feeling attracted to someone is the same region that lights up when a drug addict takes cocaine or when we binge eat sweets or shopaholics. Attraction to another person can, quite literally, be addictive. MRI scans have indicated this, showing that the brain of someone in love looks eerily like that of a coke addict. Dopamine has also been linked to separation anxiety, leading a person to check their phone every five seconds to see if their lover texted them. Surges of norepinephrine can cause sleepless nights. It seems as though, falling in love can severely damage your health. Too much of a good thing can be bad for you. Sexual arousal turns off the part of the brain that is in control of critical thinking and rational behavior. Thus, love can make us dumb. Love can be the best thing or the worst thing for you.
I wasn’t in love with him. I know that now. Maybe I was in love with the idea of him. All I knew was that it stung. It stung more than I anticipated that it would. Science can’t cure a broken heart, only time can do that. Science can only give us so much. Sometimes we get answers, and sometimes we get more questions. Despite the anatomy of love, love remains an enigma. It is a complicated mess. It is impossible to define. Everyone has their version, their definition of what it means to be in love. For scientists though, love is a complex formula of hormones. For better or worse, love is all hormones.