5 Ways Love Affects the Brain

Love in the brain

brains in love

(Image credit: umnola, Shutterstock)

"Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind," as Shakespeare's Helena said in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" — and perhaps neuroscientists would agree.

Love might seem to move in mysterious ways, but scientists actually have a pretty good idea of what love does to the brain. Being in love floods the brain with chemicals and hormones that produce feelings of pleasure, obsession and attachment. Here's a look at five ways love affects the brain.

Read more: 12 scientifically proven signs of love

Hormones go haywire

dopamine molecule

Dopamine molecule (Image credit: foxterrier2005 | Shutterstock)

Neuroscientists divide love into three phases: lust, attraction and attachment. During the lust phase, hormones flood the body with feelings of intense desire. Adrenaline and norepinephrine make the heart race and the palms sweat, while the brain chemical dopamine creates feelings of euphoria. The brain releases dopamine in response to other pleasurable stimuli too, including drugs, which explains the so-called lovers' high. [How Do I Love Thee? Experts Count 8 Ways]

Works like a drug

Study researcher Olga Chelnokova

Study researcher Olga Chelnokova studied how the brain perceives beautiful faces. (Image credit: Svein Harald Milde and Guro Løseth)

Even before people fall in love, seeing an attractive face activates the same part of the brain as do painkillers such as morphine: the opioid system. This part of the brain is responsible for feelings of "liking." A recent study showed that men who were given small doses of morphine rated photographs of women's faces as more attractive than did men who didn't get any morphine, suggesting the opioid system can be "primed" to perceive attractiveness.

Makes the blood pump

MRI of a human brain, sagittal slice.

An MRI scan reveals the gross anatomical structure of the human brain. (Image credit: Courtesy FONAR Corporation)

Being in love increases blood flow to the brain's pleasure center, the nucleus accumbens. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans show this region lights up when people are in love. The surge in blood flow usually happens during the attraction phase, when partners become fixated on each other.

Makes brain a little 'OCD'

(Image credit: stock.xchng)

Love lowers levels of the brain chemical serotonin, a common attribute of obsessive-compulsive disorders. The serotonin drop could explain why lovers display such single-minded concentration on the object of their affection. These feelings can also cause lovers to be blind to their partner's undesirable traits in the early stages of a relationship, choosing to focus only on their partner's good qualities.

Hormones create attachment

A man and a woman in the bedroom.

Men with higher levels of testosterone are more likely to have a positive attitude about safe sex, a new study finds. (Image credit: Yuri Arcurs, Shutterstock)

After people have been in love for some time, the body develops a tolerance to the pleasurable chemicals. The attraction phase gives way to the attachment phase, when the hormones oxytocin and vasopressin permeate the brain and create feelings of well-being and security.

Tanya Lewis
Staff Writer
Tanya was a staff writer for Live Science from 2013 to 2015, covering a wide array of topics, ranging from neuroscience to robotics to strange/cute animals. She received a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a bachelor of science in biomedical engineering from Brown University. She has previously written for Science News, Wired, The Santa Cruz Sentinel, the radio show Big Picture Science and other places. Tanya has lived on a tropical island, witnessed volcanic eruptions and flown in zero gravity (without losing her lunch!). To find out what her latest project is, you can visit her website.