Research

The Neurochemical Self: Loretta Graziano Breuning PhD

Love triggers dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin. That's why it's so motivating. But happy chemicals come in spurts. They do their job by turning off after they turn on. When your happy chemicals dip, you might interpret it as a loss of love. That turns a natural fluctuation into a crisis. You are better off knowing why love makes happy chemicals go up and down.

Love triggers dopamine

Dopamine is the great feeling you get when you find your missing keys. It's the neurochemical that’s evolved for seeking and finding. Animals sniff around for food and mating opportunities, and when they find something that meets their needs, dopamine surges. But the surge is short. Dopamine does its job by dropping after it rises, so it's ready to alert you to the next chance to meet your needs.

When you find your keys, you don't expect that great dopamine feeling to last. But when you find ‘the one’, you make so much dopamine that you assume you will soar forever. When the dopamine finally subsides, you wonder what's wrong. You might even blame ‘the one’ for having changed.

I am not saying we should keep seeking new mates to stimulate dopamine. I'm saying we did not evolve to be on a dopamine high all the time.

Love triggers oxytocin

Oxytocin is a powerful hormone, which we can feel surging through our bodies when we are hugged, kissed and feel loved by someone. It’s the neurochemical implicated in trust.

Reptiles release oxytocin during sex, but mammals produce it all the time. That's why reptiles stay away from other reptiles except when mating, while mammals form attachments to relatives and herds.  The more oxytocin you release with a person, the more attached you feel. More touch, more oxytocin, more trust. But trust gets complicated in the human brain. You trust a person to live up to your expectations, and don't realize how complex your expectations are. Eventually, your loved one fails to meet your expectations, and you fail to meet theirs.

To your mammal brain, any loss of trust is a life-threatening emergency. When a sheep is separated from its flock, its oxytocin dips and its cortisol surges. Cortisol is the feeling we experience as fear, panic, or anxiety. It works for sheep, motivating them to re-connect with the flock before they're eaten alive! In humans, cortisol turns disappointed expectations into emergencies.

Love triggers serotonin

Getting respect feels good because it stimulates serotonin. In the animal world, social dominance brings more mating opportunity and more surviving offspring. Animals don't dominate because of conscious long-term goals. They dominate because serotonin feels good.

Your brain always wants more respect to get more serotonin. Your loved one may give you that feeling at first, by respecting you or helping you feel respected by others. But your brain takes the respect you already have for granted. It wants more respect to get more good feelings. That's why some people constantly make more demands on their loved ones, and others constantly seek out higher status partners. We'd all be better off if we understood the origins of our neurochemical impulses.

Mammalian signals

Happy chemicals evolved because they get us to do things that promote reproduction. That doesn't make sense in our world of birth control and sustainability pressures. But in the ebb and flow of nature/life lots of babies died and you had to really focus on making babies to have a few that survived. You may not care about making babies, but your brain is inherited from those who did. Natural selection created a brain that rewards reproductive behaviour with happy chemicals. 

Love promotes reproduction, so it triggers a lot of happy chemicals. Sex is just one aspect of reproductive behaviour. It's important—love motivates you to move mountains in order to be alone with that special someone. But the survivability of your offspring is what mattered to evolution. And that depends on building bonds of attachment, and competing for top quality mates. But happy chemicals feel so good that your brain looks for ways to get more. Neurochemicals do their job without words, and we look for words to explain the crazy motivations they create in us.

Happy chemicals give us information that's hard to interpret. For example, if I watch a football game and burst with excitement when my team scores, I see thousands of others share my reaction. It feels like they understand me. Why doesn't my partner understand me when thousands of others do? The answer is simple. Spectator sports trigger oxytocin, as do politics, religion, and other group activities. You get a good feeling of trust. Of course, trusting a large number of people in a limited way is not the same as trusting one person in a comprehensive way. But to your mammal brain, it's all the same oxytocin.

We want all the happy chemicals we can get. You expect some from romance, and some from other aspects of life. But no matter where you get them, happy chemicals sag after they spurt. When you know why, you can manage your behaviour better despite the confusing neurochemical signals.

There's good news here. Don't blame yourself or your partner if you're not high on happy chemicals all the time. Maybe nothing is wrong. You are just living with the operating system that has kept mammals alive for millions of years.