What happens when we fall in love?
What about when we fall in lust?

Love vs. Lust

Dr. Helen Fisher is an anthropologist and lead researcher into “why we love.” MRI brain scans of people madly in love and those rejected in love were obtained and found that the brain in love showed a highly active area called the ventral tegmental area – where dopamine is produced – and associated with the brain’s reward and motivation system. Another part of the brain is activated as well, the caudate nucleus. This part of the brain is stimulated when we want, crave, focus and try to win something. The mental difference between lust and love comes down to this one structure of the brain. Lust is a thrill seekers high… and also fades with time. Falling in love rewards those who relentlessly pursue a goal – to be with a loved one. Sex and love are different brain systems. The roots of love lie in the need for attachment. Evolutionarily it was essential for women to form pair bonds and attach in order to rear their children. Desire, lust and love can seem like a chemical roller coaster deep inside our brains.

Dr. Fisher often refers to romantic love as less of an emotion and more of a drive – it’s more of a reward system of the brain. This drive compels us to find a specific partner and is also linked to specific emotions that are dependent on the relationship. The prefrontal cortex functions as a file system of patterns, strategies, and monitoring data for finding a mate. Love isn’t always a splendid thing. Fisher’s work cited a study where a large percentage of participants that had been dumped or rejected in love and experienced clinical to severe depression. Statistics have shown a large percentage of homicides are committed by lovers and spouses and there is an annual rate of one million women that are stalked.

Love can be divided into three categories each with its own connection to the brain:

  • Lust – passionate sexual desire – driven by androgens and estrogens
  • Attraction – specific and individualized romantic desire – driven by high dopamine and norepinephrine levels and low serotonin
  • Attachment – bonding that promotes long-term relationships – driven by oxytocin and vasopressin hormones

Recent studies have indicated that as people fall in love, the brain consistently releases a certain set of chemicals, including pheromones, dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin, which act in a manner similar to amphetamines, stimulating the brain’s pleasure center and leading to side effects such as increased heart rate, loss of appetite and sleep, and an intense feeling of excitement. Research has indicated that this stage generally lasts from one and a half to three years. Both lust and attraction are temporary and attachment is needed to account for long-term relationships. Love is a drive towards attachment. The craving for love can be stronger than sex. Dr. Fisher made a great point when she said that people don’t kill other people when they don’t get sex…lust wears off. People that are in love longer than 17 months start to experience satiation.

Love Wears Off

High levels of oxytocin and vasopressin may interfere with dopamine and norepinephrine pathways, which may explain why attachment grows and passionate love fades. Dr. Fisher’s work found that an equal number of respondents had been dumped and also dumped someone who loved them. Being rejected in love can cause “frustration attraction” which makes you love the person more intensely. Psychologists also refer to “abandonment rage” and “frustration depression,” which often lead to break-ups and problems in the relationship.  Next is resignation and despair, where the brain’s reward system begins to realize you are never going to get what you want. Despair may seem counterproductive, but it is in essence “a failure of denial” that allows us to see the world for what it is and sets us on the road to finding a more suitable partner.

Love at Risk

Dr. Fisher spoke at the seminar “Sex, Sexuality, and Serotonin,” where psychologists and scientists gathered to discuss how antidepressants can jeopardize love. She addressed that love is chemically comprised of high dopamine and norepinephrine and low serotonin. Low serotonin would explain the obsessive thinking attached to romantic love. In her MRI study, her subjects reported that they thought about their loved one 95 percent of the day and couldn’t stop thinking about them. This kind of obsessive thinking is comparable to OCD and also characterized by low serotonin.

Serotonin-enhancing antidepressants can cause blunt emotions, an elation of romance, and suppress obsessive thinking. These antidepressants also inhibit orgasm, clitoral stimulation, penile erection, and deposit of seminal fluid. From an anthropological perspective, a woman who can’t get an orgasm may fail to distinguish Mr. Right from Mr. Wrong. One study found that women on SSRI’s had decrease in attraction and sexual drive.

Ironically, because antidepressants inhibit depression, patients may lose their ability to send an honest clear signal for social support and (for those with mild depression) lose the necessary insight to make hard decisions (the failure of denial factor).

Dr. Fisher said she didn’t want psychiatrists to stop prescribing serotonin-enhancing antidepressants for their patients, but did stress the need to take the love-relationship picture into account.

For more information on love, lust, and attraction read Dr. Helen Fisher’s book entitled, “Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love”.

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