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The Science of Love: 7 Chemical Stages in Every Relationship

I’ve always been fascinated by how the brain works.

The ever-elusive nature vs. nurture theories, the hidden mysteries of the unimpressive appearance of the wrinkly gray mass that contains the innermost workings of our human experience.

From behavior to the way we eat, walk, see, and talk, the human brain is the epicenter of our lives. And although Valentines Day is coming up, with its never-ending influx of pink hearts and red heart-shaped treats that dominate the Pinterest feeds of those of us foolish enough to follow along (me), love really takes on an entirely different shape:

Our brain.

But what really goes on at the most primitive levels of our brain when we move through the stages of a relationship? Is there an actual science of love?

All sources point to yes. And even though love can be broken down into basic chemicals and hormones surging in ever-changing levels in our brain, I’d like to think, in the spirit of love, that the source that moves us, mystifies us, and sometimes frustrates us, isn’t always something that can be measured.

  • The science of love 1 of 8
    science of love
  • New love 2 of 8
    new love

    Ahh, new love. The phase of infatuation, staying up all night and talking (among other things); when everything feels new and magical. Turns out, all that magic is due to an influx of dopamine, which according to the 2006 article "Love, The Chemical Reaction" in National Geographic, creates "intense energy, exhilaration, focused attention, and motivation to win rewards." 

     

    Image via j&j brusie photography

  • The love-obsessed state 3 of 8
    love obsessed

    Say that you love someone, but he doesn't necessarily love you back. What happens in your brain when you're replaying every moment together, rereading the love texts you exchanged, and obsessively stalking all of his social media sites? Well, in the National Geographic article, Donatella Marazziti, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Pisa in Italy studied the chemicals of lovesick people and found something quite interesting — chemically, there was no difference between those "obsessed" with love and participants suffering from actual obsessive compulsive disorders. Both conditions caused drops of serotonin in the brain, almost 40% lower than normal brains. 

     

    Image via j&j brusie photography

  • Lust + longing 4 of 8
    longing

    If you've ever wondered where the term "lovesick" comes from, you may have our good friend norepinephrine to thank. Norepinephrine is called the "longing hormone," responsible for activating the fight or flight syndrome in the brain, prompting the mind and body to long for love lost or love newly found. 

     

    Image via j&j brusie photography

  • The stabilizing state 5 of 8
    stabilizing

    Those frenzied levels of dopamine present in the first stages of love simply can't last forever. After a few years, the dopamine levels of new love lessen to a more normal state in the brain. Scientists speculate that this is for the brain's self-preservation, as frenzied levels of dopamine activity simply can't be maintained. 

     

    Image via j&j brusie photography

  • The four-year fizzle 6 of 8
    four year fizzle

    In the same 2006 article in National Geographic anthropologist Helen Fisher speculates that the brain is hard-wired to maintain the dopamine surge for a period of four years, because that's the length of time that it takes to raise a child through infancy. After that, the brain levels taper off and each partner may look for their next "high," much like a drug user is constantly seeking the next fix. 

     

    Image via j&j brusie photography

  • The slow simmer 7 of 8
    slow simmer

    If you survive the dopamine-fueled yet, short-lived time of passion in your relationship, what comes next? It is, as National Geographic describes, the "relative quiet of an oxytocin-induced attachment." Oxytocin, the love hormone of nursing mothers, the bonding hormone, that one that floods our brains when we hug or cuddle — apparently, it's what keeps the fire burning, if not on high, at least at a slow simmer. 

     

    Image via j&j brusie photography

  • The rekindling 8 of 8
    rekindling

    I confess that most days of my marriage could use a little re-ignite of the ol' love spark. But as it would turn out, even though the hubs and I are definitely stuck on the slow simmer, there is still hope. According to the National Geographic article, novelty, or new experiences, trigger dopamine in the brain, making a once old-love seem fresh and new again. So all of that stuff about date nights is important. Mix it up with a new experience, and reap the benefits. 

     

    Image via j&j brusie photography

Read more of Chaunie’s posts here or learn more about Chaunie (and her husband) by checking out her blog and following along on Facebook

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