The Neuroscience of Romance: Your Brain on Love

Our brains see love as a reward and also an addiction. What happens to our brains when we are in love? Can science explain whether love can last? Ask Science explores the heart-brain connection.

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD
4-minute read
Episode #319

...these same feelings of love are found to be linked to lower levels of serotonin, which may seem counter-intuitive. Serotonin is another neurotransmitter that, like dopamine, passes along the information that you are happy and feeling rewarded.

Serotonin is also linked to cognition, learning, and memory and lower levels of serotonin are common in people with obsessive compulsive disorders. So diminishing serotonin levels will increase your desire for your mate, and empirical evidence suggests that they may lead to reduced cognitive control. Reduced cognitive control is just another way of saying you can’t control where you focus your attention, similar to OCD.

Ever heard the expression love is blind? This obsession-like concentration on a lover or crush may be the reason your roommate can’t seem to see all the red flags that you find so obvious when it comes to her new beau.

Long Lasting Love Has Its Own Chemistry

The kind of love we have described so far is what neuroscientists have labeled passionate love, or love in the early stages. But what about a longer lasting love? Does the chemical imprint left on our brain change as we age and relationships progress?

In the later stages of love, serotonin levels are found to increase and dopamine surges are lowered to more normal levels. This combination means you feel less of the aching desire for your partner but instead feel a more secure, less anxious happiness. Oxytocin, known as the cuddle hormone, is also produced during close contact and strengthens bonds between partners. (Oxytocin is also produced during breastfeeding and skin-to-skin contact with newborns and is responsible for the strong bonds between mother and baby.)

One study attempted to compare directly the brain activity of couples in newly passionate love with those in loving, longer term relationships (an average of 21 years of marriage). Again through functional MRI imaging, researchers determined that looking at a picture of their spouse triggered the same area of the brain in the long term lovers as those areas activated by feelings of passionate love, namely the ventral tegmental area. So even after 20 years of marriage, science says we can still find our relationship with our spouse to be rewarding and perhaps tap into a bit of that dopamine-induced lover’s high.

Until next time, this is Dr. Sabrina Stierwalt with Ask Science’s Quick and Dirty Tips for helping you make sense of science. You can become a fan of Ask Science on Facebook or follow me on Twitter, where I’m @QDTeinstein. If you have a question that you’d like to see on a future episode, send me an email at everydayeinstein@quickanddirtytips.com.

Heart and brain image courtesy of Shutterstock.


Please note that archive episodes of this podcast may include references to Ask Science. Rights of Albert Einstein are used with permission of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Represented exclusively by Greenlight.

About the Author

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD

Dr Sabrina Stierwalt earned a Ph.D. in Astronomy & Astrophysics from Cornell University and is now a Professor of Physics at Occidental College.