The Neuroscience of Desire

How did you meet that special someone? Maybe you bumped into them with your grocery cart or mixed up your drinks at Starbucks. Or maybe it was less serendipitous. Maybe you risked humiliation by approaching a beautiful stranger at a bar or worked with someone for years before finally having a real conversation with them. When it comes to love and attraction, the beauty of a shared human experience is that no matter how vastly different we all are, our brains still react in similar ways when Mr. or Mrs. Right comes along.

At a monthly Mindshare Los Angeles workshop, Science Journalist, Sharon Brock gave a presentation called The Neuroscience of Love where she explained how the body responds to various stages of attraction by releasing four unique neurochemicals into the brain.

Dopamine, better known for those butterflies in the stomach, gives us a fleeting rush of excitement when we flirt or ask someone out. The brain reacts in a similar way to sugar, nicotine and cocaine. If you’re connecting the dots here, you’ve already realized that all of these things are potentially addictive. Reality TV has done a wonderful job of demonstrating how, for some, the thrill of the chase can be just as addictive as one of these substances.

Phenylethylamine (P.E.A.), the neurochemical responsible for lust, is what we have to thank for most of the clichés repeated in every romantic comedy. It’s the desire that causes that can’t eat, can’t sleep, head over heels, honeymoon period.

Oxytocin, has given rise to some of the best and worst poetry of all time. This potent little muse, also known as “the bonding chemical” is released upon skin-to-skin contact. Holding hands, kissing and especially sex releases a flood of oxytocin in the brain, creating a powerful emotional bond. In fact, many of the hardships associated with long-distance relationships can be linked to the absence of oxytocin.

Serotonin, the “best-friend chemical” becomes more present in the brain as the relationship develops. By the time you and your hubby celebrate your third anniversary, the Serotonin levels in your brains will have risen to almost completely replace the presence of dopamine. This period is sometimes referred to as the “three-year slump”—the point when the exhilaration of being with someone is replaced by a stable feeling of contentment. The change over, while gradual, can be jarring and may cause couples to question whether something is missing in their relationship. This is typically when you see divorce rates skyrocket.




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