February 10, 2022
Michael Merzenich, PhD

As the Bard said, “Love is a many splendored thing.” Appropriately, that quote is from Shakespeare’s sonnets, not his plays. Although, as a scientist, I can talk about the brain chemistry of love, I am also certain that love can be as much poetry as chemistry.

With Valentine’s Day fast approaching, let’s look at both the chemical brain processes that correspond with love, and what we can do to prepare for love and to be loving.

When You’re Falling in Love

When you are falling in love, it’s as though a chemical storm has been unleashed in the brain. The brain’s neuromodulatory system is rapidly pumping out large quantities of dopamine and noradrenaline. It’s that chemical explosion that makes you feel excited and warm all over.

Dopamine is a brain chemical associated with reward. It’s the brain’s way of adjusting to some good result that should be accentuated and remembered. In this case, dopamine gets released when I receive something wonderful from you — as I do in the association we call love — or, when I have the pleasure of giving you something. Love is a mutual giving and receiving of something wonderful.

The same system is releasing noradrenaline because of the newness and excitement of it all. It’s the brain’s way of accentuating that there is something novel going on that should be noticed. It makes you feel brighter and more alive. There is almost no time in your life when you feel more alive than when you are falling in love.

Craving Your Beloved

As the relationship deepens, the pleasure that you associate with love makes you crave more.

One of the wonderful things about dopamine is that it is initially only released at the time of the excitement, but then the brain is smart enough to release it in advance of the excitement — in anticipation of the hug, the kiss, or the presence of the beloved.

You actually begin to feel warm before the moment of connection. That contributes to you craving it. It becomes an addiction. You want to see that person again — to connect again.

I should let you know that these chemical systems also kick in over things you love. Perhaps you really enjoy a martini after a hard day at work. Initially, it’s because of the way it makes you feel (more relaxed), but after a while you get some of that feeling of relaxation from the first sip — long before the alcohol has done its job — because of your anticipation of its effects.

But let’s not belittle the intensity of the rush of love by comparing it with the smaller rushes from things we love.

As Love Matures

As the relationship matures, it becomes more than an addiction. It becomes an “attachment,” which arises in two ways.

The first is that when you really connect with someone — when you are really rewarded by being in that person’s presence — the brain releases oxytocin. Oxytocin contributes to the feeling that the person with you is trusted, is someone who should be one with you. A chemical bonding occurs.

This is also the kind of bonding between a parent and child. It occurs between two people who are so positively and continuously connected that they form a chemical bond — both when they are together and when they think of one another.

The second critical thing happening relates to how you grow your own sense of self. You grow it by self-reference. When I feel something, when I act, when I think, I am continuously associating that feeling, act, or thought to its source, and that source is me, and from that I create my “self.”

However, the same processes work to create a strong attachment to anything that is positively and strongly close to you. And what is closer to you, what is stronger to you, than someone you love?

The consequence of that is that your brain — through its plasticity (its ability to reorganize, chemically, structurally, and functionally) — grows that person whom you love into your “self.” That person becomes a part of you. Ultimately, you are bonded, you are wedded in your brain — just as you may be wedded in life.

Preparing the Brain for Love

Can the knowledge of how these processes play out in the brain help us be more open to love and more loving? Can we prepare for love?

First of all, you want to exercise the brain machinery. You want to make sure the machinery is in a powerful form that controls the release of noradrenaline and dopamine. You do that by living a life full of excitement, surprises, challenges, and interesting moments. You want to live a life that is full of reward and novelty.

One way you can control the delivery of reward is by becoming the rewarder. By you being the generous agent. Every time you are kind to someone, every time you are sympathetic to someone, you also release dopamine.

Given my research in building plasticity-based brain exercises, I have to add that you can use our computerized exercises in BrainHQ, because those exercises work this neuromodulatory machinery quite heavily.

However, you can also exercise this machinery heavily in everyday life — by being a positive, loving, generous person. I strongly recommend that. Live a life full of vitality, full of interesting and surprising things, and be a positive, loving, generous person. And, when love comes your way, you’ll be fully ready to respond to it.

Of course, you can also just wait to be struck through the heart by that arrow from Cupid — somewhere out there — waiting to surprise you. Because that can happen too. Be ready for the surprise. And for love.