When Mairead met Dr. Sabina: What Neuroscience can tell us about love.
Have you ever considered the connection between neuroscience and love?
Mairead met with health psychologist, neuroscientist and best selling author Dr. Sabina Brennan to discuss the ways neuroscience and love are closely intertwined.
It turns out the brain plays a massive role when it comes to love, sex and attraction, and Dr. Sabina explains why.
First and foremost: our brains are organs of love and sex
When we think of love and sex, many of us think of our hearts and our nether regions.
However, according to Dr. Sabina, whilst love is associated with our heart, it’s also very connected to our brains. All of our actions, thoughts and decisions come from our brains, as our brains communicate information with the rest of our bodies through neurotransmitters and hormones.
So, that means love and all of its associated feelings have a huge mental component.
Why do we feel like our brains are scrambled when we fall in love, or speak to someone we fancy?
Whilst love is associated with our brains, this doesn’t mean that it relies on rationality.
Our frontal lobe, which is commonly used for rational thought, gets shut down when we enter the first stages of falling in love. Additionally, when it comes to attraction, our brains release dopamine, otherwise known as the happy drug, and noradrenaline, which gives us energy.
The weakening of rational thought combined with the release of these chemicals can cause you to blush, sweat and have a racing heart. This is why you’ll find yourself stumbling over your words or embarrassing yourself during those early stages of dating. The nervousness of falling in love elicits a stress response, which is why you may feel yourself getting giddy and anxious.
If love feels like stress….isn’t that a bad thing?
According to Dr. Sabina, stress isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Poorly managed chronic stress is bad, but stress is actually a good thing, as it challenges and stimulates us, which helps us meet our goals and achieve things in life.
Dr. Sabina stresses that it’s important to go beyond your comfort zone, as this is actually very healthy for your brain. She says it's important to push yourself “just beyond your comfort zone”, as “your brain needs to keep getting new experiences to update its information processing”.
So, the stress you may feel when you’re on a first date is just a sign that you’re exiting your comfort zone, which is a good thing. And who knows, those uncomfortable first dates could be the start of an amazing relationship!
What about some of the ‘feel good’ chemicals that are released when you’re in love?
When you’re feeling love or attraction towards someone, your brain also releases dopamine, otherwise known as ‘the reward chemical’. Dopamine is in charge of all those ‘feel good’ sensations that usually occur when you’re in love, having sex, eating, or doing things that aren’t so good for you.
Dr. Sabina says that attraction and addiction “both operate on the reward centres of your brain”, which is why being attracted to someone can also become quite addictive.
There are some people who are more predisposed to risk taking behaviours like cheating, and this is genetic!
The same feel good hormones that can help us put ourselves out there can also cause problematic or risky behaviours.
According to Dr. Sabina, when you have too much dopamine, the reward can come from risk. So, this may cause people to be unfaithful in their relationships.
Interestingly, there’s a gene that actually causes people to be more drawn to risky behaviours. It can therefore be said that people with this gene are more likely to cheat on their partners.
However, it’s important to note that the frontal lobe, which is in charge of decision making, is able to override most of these risk taking behaviours. So, if you have a partner who blames their infidelities on their genetic makeup, this is definitely not an excuse.
Whilst we’re on the topic of chemicals and hormones, neuroscience can also explain why men are less affectionate after orgasm
Alongside dopamine and noradrenaline, oxytocin is another chemical associated with love, especially when it comes to sex.
Oxytocin, often referred to as ‘the love hormone’ or ‘the cuddle hormone’ is released when people are bonding. According to Dr. Sabine, this is most common during childbirth and breastfeeding, when women are bonding with their baby, and also during orgasm, causing you to bond with the person you’re having sex with.
Both men and women experience a release of oxytocin during orgasm, but women release more of it than men. This is why women tend to feel more affectionate after sex, whilst sometimes, men don’t.
Let's talk about attraction
Generally, what are some of the things people are attracted to?
Based on broad, heterosexual research, men and women generally seem to be the most attracted to kindness, intelligence, dependability, emotional stability and good health.
This can be broken down further, as men look for youthfulness and fertility, whilst women seek maturity and socio-economic status. And according to research, all these factors are weighted similarly in terms of importance.
According to Dr. Sabine, when people are asked what they’re attracted to in a partner, many of the things they’ll list are very influenced by society and culture. As a result, people have lost touch of their true desires and this idealism can prevent people from finding a partner.
We know society plays a role in who we’re attracted to, but do genetics also play a role in our love and sex life?
Alongside social norms, genetics and heritage also play an important role in our sex and love lives.
Dr. Sabina says that genetic heritage can influence our choice in partners, and even the gender we’re attracted to. Oftentimes, we look for partners who have a similar upbringing to us, as these commonalities are what bond us to others. However, this can lead to biassed dating, and can prevent people from experiencing different types of love.
As much as our brains thrive off routine and comfort, they also love to seek our new things. So, if you’re looking for a partner, it’s good to experiment with people who are similar to you, as well as people who are very different. As we know, it’s important to step outside of your comfort zone, so try dating different partners, as you never know, what you thought was right for you may actually be the opposite of what you truly want.
Whilst romance and science seem unrelated, the insights gathered through neuroscience are very helpful in explaining why love causes people to act in certain ways. Neuroscience explains the thrill of a new relationship, the attraction to people who feel like home, and the reason men aren’t interested in cuddles after sex. Brains are complex and dynamic, and neuroscience has a lot to offer when it comes to explaining human behaviour.
Interested in learning more about the science of love? Listen to Mairead and Dr. Sabina’s full podcast episode.