Anybody who has ever experienced the early stages of a romance will recognise the symptoms that can accompany those first few dates – ‘butterflies’ in the stomach, a racing heart, sweaty palms, temporary blindness to the other person’s annoying habits (which become much more obvious later in the relationship!). What is it about love that creates these physical reactions in the body? Often, it’s the heart that gets the blame for our irrational love-struck behaviour. In fact, it’s the brain that can be held responsible!
Many studies trying to explain this phenomenon have compared the effect of love on the body to that of addictive drugs like heroin and cocaine. In particular, it is the effect that love has on dopamine – the “feel good” chemical – that seems to explain the buzz of new romance. Increased dopamine also explains why those in the early stages of love often have less need for sleep or food, increased energy and take great pleasure in even slightest details of their new relationship.
Oxytocin is a powerful hormone which serves a number of functions in the human body. In pregnant women, it is the hormone that signals for labour to begin by causing contractions in the womb. It also promotes lactation, facilitating breast-feeding of the new baby. However, oxytocin has also recently been shown to be an important element in human emotions and social interactions. It triggers the important bond between a mother and her infant. It is also released during hugging, touching and orgasm in both genders, prompting feelings of trust, calmness and contentment.
Scans of the brain have been used in research which looks at the difference between sexual attraction and long-term love – both have been found to activate the nucleus accumbens (the brain’s pleasure centre) but only long-term love activates the insula. The insula is the part of the brain that assigns value to pleasurable activities, ensuring that we continue to engage in them.
If you’re in a long-term relationship, organising a regular date night can recreate the effects of the early stages of love. In the early stages of a romance, the brain is flooded with dopamine and norepinephrine. These brain chemicals form part of the brain’s reward system and are activated by new experiences. By engaging in new experiences with your partner, you can recreate the chemical surges you felt when you first met. When planning ‘date night’, try to branch out from the familiar by trying a new restaurant, taking a walk in a new place or even taking up a new hobby together!