Today – 14th February – is Valentine’s Day, so what else would I be writing about but LOVE?
Whether you’re a romantic or cynic, whether you buy into it wholeheartedly or avoid it altogether, Valentines Day has been in our calendars since the 15th century as a celebration of romantic love, marked by secretly sending cards to those we wish to romance, or declare our love to.
That tradition of sending ‘Valentines’ can seem old fashioned and irrelevant to many, even before it was taken over by Clintons! So as a single person, and solution focused hypnotherapist who loves neuroscience, I thought I would dig a little deeper into the chemical basis of love for you, to show it’s more fundamental than sentimental hearts and flowers.
What is love?
We use the word ‘love’ a lot. I know I do. I say that I love my kids, of course. And my family. I tell my friends I love them, too and my wider family. And my dog.
But then, I also say that I love gin, and dark chocolate, and sunsets and amazing views.
I also hear myself say that I love someone’s new outfit, or a new book, or song, or even a sparkly cushion.
It feels as if, unlike the eskimos with their many words for different kinds of snow, that we are word-poor when it comes to explaining what we mean by ‘love’.
The ancient Greeks did it better than we currently do, separating the concept of love into seven forms of the emotion, but with my neuroscience geekiness, I wondered if we could simplify that by basing our experience of love on which neurotransmitter it is most closely associated with.
Are Neurotransmitters Cupid’s arrows?
If you’ve read any of my earlier blogs, you will have been introduced to neurotransmitters – the tiny molecules that allow our brain cells to communicate with each other. They can be thought of as powering our movements, our thoughts, our emotions, and our habits.
You may be familiar with words like serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin, possibly GABA and noradrenaline, or even endorphins. But what do these teeny molecules have to do with love? Are they the real ‘Cupid’s arrows?
I’ve already said that (with many other substances) they act within the brain, allowing its component parts to connect and communicate, which allows for a very nuanced and complex system. But if we simplify it to which circuits principally use which molecules, we get an interesting, if broad, overview.
Let’s start with the classic ‘love hormone’ – oxytocin.
Oxytocin is often associated with the love between a mother and child, since it’s released during labour and breastfeeding, but it’s also there in the brain during sex, and in long term, stable relationships where we feel safe, and cared for or nurtured.
Oxytocin gives us that warm, fuzzy, comforting feeling that comes from being with our favourite people. Those we would easily say we love – our partner, our family and close friends – the people that give us a sense of being accepted, valued, and looked after.
Oxytocin is also released in response to time spent with our furry friends – snuggling with a pet or stroking one next to you. There’s something very soothing about that, isn’t there? Calming.
Oxytocin is also present in the brains of potentially the least romantic interaction – in football fans!
Despite a less than ‘warm and fuzzy’ vibe from an outsider’s perspective, when fans wear a team shirt, or scarf they share a common connection to each other in their shared bond to a team. The feeling of ‘us’ versus ‘them’ is down to our brain responding to oxytocin, and the drive to protect the safety of ‘us’ against the danger of ‘them’ of a rival team with violence if necessary.
I told you it was nuanced and complicated…
Where oxytocin has the cosy reputation as the ‘cuddle hormone’, having too much dopamine is seen as dangerous – having high amounts of dopamine in the brain accounts for the rush of taking drugs, or the intense high of parachute jumping.
I’ve never done either of those things, so I can’t tell you about them from personal experience; but if you’ve ever experienced the feeling of falling in love – the excitement, and giddiness, the desire to see them again – then you’ve come close. Because that same intensity of feeling like you really, really, really want to be with that person? All the time, as much as you can? That’s also down to high levels of dopamine.
And it’s why being dumped or ghosted by someone is so hard to deal with. We are effectively being made to go cold-turkey, withdrawing from our drug of choice – that person we want – similarly to a drug addict going without heroin.
I know it sounds extreme, but this has been shown in brain imaging studies – the same part of the brain lights up when we are heartbroken or whether craving heroin. That’s why falling out of love feels so hard.
But the feelings linked to dopamine don’t have to be that extreme.
The kind of ‘love’ I have for incredible sunsets, or a gorgeous view; the sense of awe at mother nature and the variety of scenery and vistas on our incredible planet is also mediated by dopamine.
Closer to home, the enjoyment of a glass of wine, favourite ice cream or delicious chocolate, is also produced in the brain by releasing small amounts of dopamine – there’s a reason Bridget Jones goes hard in on the Ben & Jerrys and Chardonnay!! It helps to cushion the blow of being newly single and bereft of her usual dopamine fix from Mark Darcy or Daniel Cleaver.
The feelings we get from serotonin being released in the brain is a very different kind of feeling to that of dopamine.
It’s softer; more about internal appreciation of something instead of the all-consuming ‘I need it’ drive to go BE with your special person, do heroin, or to a lesser extent, eat chocolate.
The feelings from serotonin are more about enjoying the here and now. Enjoying listening to music, the contentment from being warm inside on a rainy day, the sense of being pleased with our environment, or ourselves, content and happy in a quiet, sustainable way are all serotonin driven. We generate serotonin within the circuitry of our brain when we notice these little things around us and appreciate the small positives in our day.
Serotonin is inextricably linked to happiness through its association with antidepressants, like the now-famous Prozac, one of many medicines known as serotonin re-uptake inhibitors, which make the little jolts of serotonin we generate last longer.
But as my clients find in our work together, we can develop the same advantage by simply noticing those little wins in the first place, training our brain to make the most of the serotonin prompts that are all around us.
So, when you tell a friend that you love their new haircut, or someone tells you that they love your scarf, or you decide that you love that colour-changing light, those thoughts have their impact because of serotonin, fizzing in your brain.
Love really IS the drug (as Bryan Ferry sang)
Experiencing the effects of our own drugs – our neurotransmitters – allows us to experience widely differing ways of ‘loving’ our favourite people, places and things.
We can value the oxytocin our romantic partners and our close friends and family bring when they provide us with mutual support, safety and comfort.
We can enjoy the dopamine thrill of a new adventure, or of falling in love; enjoying that gratifyingly expensive wine, that decadent chocolate mousse or the awe-inspiring places we visit.
And we can appreciate a beautiful piece of music, the cosy home we have created, and find quiet satisfaction with life thanks to serotonin.
Perhaps the only Valentines card you need to send, then, showing your undying love and appreciation, is to your very own brain!
About the Author: Claire Noyelle practices online and from her tranquil garden therapy room at her home in Bearsted, Maidstone East, in the heart of the garden county of Kent. Claire is a member of the Association for Solution Focused Hypnotherapists, National Council for Hypnotherapy and the Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council and a member of both the General Pharmaceutical Council and the Royal Pharmaceutical Society.
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