Love: is it just a fleeting high fuelled by brain chemicals? (2023)

I am head over heels in love but my cynical friends keep telling me that love is nothing but a cocktail of pheromones, dopamine and oxytocin, and that these wear off after a couple of years. The thought scares me, it makes the whole thing seem meaningless. Is love really just brain chemistry? Jo, London.

Licence my roving hands, and let them go,

Before, behind, between, above, below.

It is no accident that arguably the most erotic line of English poetry is all prepositions. The essence of love, at least of passionately romantic love, is revealed in its very grammar. We fall in love, not wander into it. And, as you say, we fall head over heels, not dragging our feet – often at first sight rather than on careful inspection. We fall in love madly, blind to the other’s vices, not in rational appraisal of their virtues.

At its root, romantic love is spontaneous, overwhelming, irresistible, ballistic, even if, over time, its branches take on more complex hues. It is in control of us more than we are ever in control of it. In one sense a mystery, it is in another pure simplicity – its course, once engaged, predictable and inevitable and its cultural expression more or less uniform across time and space. The impulse to think of it in terms of simple causes precedes science. Consider the arrow of Cupid, the potion of a sorcerer – love seems elemental.

(Video) Lovotics

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Yet love is not easily conquered by science. Let us look at why. Sex pheromones, chemicals designed to broadcast reproductive availability to others, are often quoted as key instruments of attraction. It is an appealing idea. But while pheromones play an important role in insect communication, there is very little evidence that they even exist in humans.

Love: is it just a fleeting high fuelled by brain chemicals? (1)

This article is part of Life’s Big Questions
The Conversation’s new series, co-published with BBC Future, seeks to answer our readers’ nagging questions about life, love, death and the universe. We work with professional researchers who have dedicated their lives to uncovering new perspectives on the questions that shape our lives.

If a chemical can signal attraction outside the body, why not inside it? The neuropeptide oxytocin, often inaccurately described as a “bonding hormone” and known for its role in lactation and uterine contraction, is the leading candidate here. This has been extensively studied, mainly in the prairie vole, whose monogamy and public displays of affection make it an ideal model animal.

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Blocking oxytocin disrupts the pair bonding that is here a surrogate for love, and makes the voles more restrained in their emotional expressions. Conversely, inducing an excess of oxytocin in other, non-monogamous vole species blunts their taste for sexual adventure. In humans, though, the effects are much less dramatic – a subtle change in the romantic preference for the familiar over the new. So oxytocin is far from proven to be essential to love.

Love’s letterbox?

Of course, even if we could identify such a substance, any message – chemical or otherwise – needs a recipient. So where is the letterbox of love in the brain? And how is the identity of the “chosen one” conveyed, given that no single molecule could possibly encode it?

When romantic love is examined with imaging of the brain, the areas that “light up” overlap with those supporting reward-seeking and goal-oriented behaviour. But that parts of our brains are set ablaze by one thing does not tell us much if they are just as excited by a very different, other thing. And the observed patterns of romantic love are not that different from those of maternal bonding, or even from the love of one’s favourite football team. So we can only conclude that neuroscience is yet to explain this “head over heels” emotion in neural terms.

Love: is it just a fleeting high fuelled by brain chemicals? (2)

Do we simply need more experiments? Yes, is usually the scientist’s answer, but here that assumes love is simple enough to be captured by a mechanistic description. And that is extremely unlikely, as nature would resist it. Evolutionarily speaking, love is ultimately about reproduction. Consider what would happen to an organism whose sexual attraction operated through a very simple mechanism involving a string of critical molecules, or a dozen or so vital neural nodes.

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Its reproductive success would then be gated by the integrity of very few genetic elements, with the potential to be knocked out entirely by a mutation or two. A predator could evolve a poison that rendered its victim not just compliant, but positively amorous, only too happy to slide from a petite mort to the real thing. Were some inanimate thing to contain the key molecule in abundance, the entire species could become objectum sexuals, choosing to play with it over sex with each other. This is almost the joke truffles play on wild pigs, and it is telling that the animals are only temporarily diverted by it.

But the evolutionary vulnerability goes deeper. Remember that sex is not primarily about the reproduction of the species, but about its optimisation, and not just in response to the world as it is now, but as it might be across the widest range of hypothetical futures. This requires that organisms are diverse across their traits, as much as selected for their fitness. Were it not so, a sudden change in the environment could make a species go extinct overnight.

So each reproductive decision can be neither simple nor uniform, for we cannot be allowed to be guided by any single characteristic, let alone the same one. Universally attractive though tallness might be, if biology allowed us to select on height alone we would all have gigantism by now. And if the decisions have to be complex, so must the neural apparatus that makes them possible.

While this explains why romantic attraction must be complex, it doesn’t explain why it can feel so instinctual and spontaneous – unlike the deliberative mode we reserve for our most important decisions. Wouldn’t a cool, detached rationality be better? To see why it would not, consider what explicit reasoning is there for in the first place. Evolving later than our instincts, we need rationality only to detach ourselves from the grounds for a decision so that others can record, understand and apply it independently of us.

But there is no need for anyone else to understand the grounds for our love, indeed the last thing we want to do is provide others with a recipe to steal our object of desire. Equally, in ceding control to recorded cultural practice, evolution would place too much “trust” in a capacity – collective rationality – that is, in evolutionary terms, far too young.

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It is also a mistake to think of instinct as simple, and inferior to careful deliberation. That it is tacit makes it potentially more sophisticated than rational analysis, for it brings into play a wider array of factors than we could ever hold simultaneously in our conscious minds. The truth of this stares us in the face: think how much better we are at recognising a face compared with describing it. Why should the recognition of love be any different?

Ultimately, if the neural mechanisms of love were simple, you should be able to induce it with an injection, to extinguish it with a scalpel while leaving everything else intact. The cold, hard logic of evolutionary biology makes this impossible. Were love not complicated, we would never have evolved in the first place.

That said, love – like all our thoughts, emotions and behaviours – rests on physical processes in the brain, a very complex interplay of them. But to say that love is “just” brain chemistry is like saying Shakespeare is “just” words, Wagner “just” notes and Michelangelo “just” calcium carbonate – it just misses the point. Like art, love is more than the sum of its parts.

So those of us lucky to experience its chaos should let ourselves be carried by the waves. And if we end up wrecked on the surf-hidden rocks, we can draw comfort from knowing reason would have got us no further.

To get all of life’s big answers, join the hundreds of thousands of people who value evidence-based news by subscribing to our newsletter. You can send us your big questions by email at and we’ll try to get a researcher or expert on the case.

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More Life’s Big Questions:

  • Death: can our final moment be euphoric?

  • Nature: have humans now evolved beyond the natural world, and do we still need it?


Is love just a fleeting chemical high in the brain? ›

Answer: Yes. We call it “falling in love,” as if we have no control over how we topple into that dreamy state of emotional bliss. But those sweetly warm feelings we connect to our heart are actually chemicals and hormones flooding an organ higher up – our brain.

What chemicals are in your brain when you fall in love? ›

High levels of dopamine and a related hormone, norepinephrine, are released during attraction. These chemicals make us giddy, energetic, and euphoric, even leading to decreased appetite and insomnia – which means you actually can be so “in love” that you can't eat and can't sleep.

Does falling in love change your brain chemistry? ›

Researchers have scanned the brains of people who are madly in love and found a heavy surge of dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain's reward system that helps people feel pleasure. Dopamine, along with other chemicals, gives us that energy, focus, and obsession we feel when we're wild about someone.

What is love a chemical explosion in your brain? ›

When you are falling in love, it's as though a chemical storm has been unleashed in the brain. The brain's neuromodulatory system is rapidly pumping out large quantities of dopamine and noradrenaline. It's that chemical explosion that makes you feel excited and warm all over.

Is falling in love just dopamine? ›

Being love-struck also releases high levels of dopamine, a chemical that “gets the reward system going,” said Olds. Dopamine activates the reward circuit, helping to make love a pleasurable experience similar to the euphoria associated with use of cocaine or alcohol.

Is love is a choice or a feeling? ›

Love is both a matter of choice and a strong feeling. While feelings can change over time, love is more stable. Even if you don't feel the same way you felt about someone at the beginning of a relationship, you can choose to stay with them even in the more difficult or boring times.

What triggers love? ›

The initial happy feelings of being in love is stimulated by 3 chemicals in the brain: noradrenaline that stimulates adrenaline production causing that racing heart and sweaty palms; dopamine, the feel-good chemical; and phenylethylamine that is released when we're near our crush, giving us butterflies in our tummies.

What chemicals do men fall in love? ›

According to love biologist Dawn Maslar, the chemicals dopamine and vasopressin are vital for a man to start falling in love, whereas it's oxytocin and dopamine for women. Oxytocin, often nicknamed the love or cuddle hormone, also plays an important role in men but at a later stage.

Can you be chemically attracted to someone? ›

"Sexual chemistry is the very strong but ineffable feeling that you feel in your body when you're attracted to someone," says Zhana Vrangalova, Ph. D., an adjunct professor of human sexuality at New York University. Typically, this attraction is physical, but it can also be intellectual or emotional.

What happens to a man's brain when he falls in love? ›

The brain releases a high amount of dopamine, the feel-good hormone which helps men to feel euphoric. This also causes the heart to beat faster and palms to get sweaty as men feel very attracted to their partners.

What are the effects of living without love? ›

Specifically, compared to people with less skin hunger, people who feel more affection-deprived: are less happy; more lonely; more likely to experience depression and stress; and, in general, in worse health. They have less social support and lower relationship satisfaction.

How long does love last scientifically? ›

How long does the romantic phase last? Studies have estimated the euphoric stage can last anywhere from six months to two years.

What happens chemically when you fall in love? ›

While there's no single pathway to falling in love, one possible reaction happens this way: After an initial spark with a person, the body may produce high levels of testosterone and estrogen, which drive intense feelings of lust.

Does oxytocin make you fall in love? ›

Oxytocin triggers feelings of love and protection, which naturally occurs when parents and children look into one another's eyes or when they embrace. Other relationship-enhancing effects also include empathy, trust, and the processing of bonding cues.

How rare is chemistry with someone? ›

Again, mutual chemistry is rare and cannot be manufactured. However, there are several things influencing this special human-to-human, electric-like attraction. They include: Mutual physical attraction.

What are the 3 stages of falling in love? ›

Table of Contents
  • Stage 1: Lust.
  • Stage 2: Attraction.
  • Stage 3: Attachment.

Does falling in love happen naturally? ›

Falling in love is usually the autonomous process that happens quite naturally when you meet a person who clicks you. This phase is often referred to as the attraction phase or the honeymoon period. This is the most exciting stage of falling in love. But with time, the excitement dissipates gradually.

What hormone is released during orgasm? ›

However, recent studies have begun to investigate oxytocin's role in various behaviors, including orgasm, social recognition, bonding, and maternal behavior. For this reason, it is now sometimes referred to as the “love hormone” and many such names described earlier.

What emotion is deeper than love? ›

Being enamored of something or with someone goes far beyond liking them, and it's even more flowery than love. Enamored means smitten with, or totally infatuated. Someone enamored with another will perhaps even swoon.

Can a person control who they fall in love with? ›

It's not possible to control your feelings when it comes to love. There shouldn't be a time limit or required amount of time. If it's going to happen, it's going to happen whether you like it or not.

How do you know if you love someone? ›

When you're in love with someone, you'll start to develop strong compassion for them. The powerful urge to be connected to this person brings new aspects to your relationship, such as emotional or physical intimacy, passion, and a desire to know everything about them, and be known by them in return.

What causes intense chemistry with someone? ›

Chemistry is born of several different factors like physical attraction, mental stimulation, shared values and interests.

What makes someone fall in love instantly? ›

Your brain is creating dopamine and serotonin, and Stratford said that it "looks like the brain of someone high on heroin." Because of those chemicals, you may feel an instant attachment to someone, and as long as your brain can sense that attachment is returned, it is on.

How many times do we fall in love? ›

A study has shown that a person can fall in love at least three times in their lifetime. However, each one of these relationships can happen in a different light from the one before and each one serves as a different purpose.

How can you tell a man is falling in love with you? ›

For example, you can watch his body language. He's likely to turn his body towards you when in conversation and to make eye contact with you. He may pay attention to you more than others that are around. He's also likely to try spending time with you more than with others when he's falling in love.

How quickly do men fall in love? ›

The average time for men to fall in love is 88 days, while those same feelings of true love take women 134 days. Another dating site, Elite Singles, did a poll in 2017 and found that 61 per cent of women believe in love at first sight, while 72 per cent of men do. These surveys focused on heterosexual relationships.

What causes a man to bond with a woman? ›

Emotional vulnerability

Research shows that by being emotionally vulnerable with each other, couples can bond with each other. It can deepen the love between them in a significant way. Emotional vulnerability can be the key to what makes a man fall deeply in love with a woman.

Can I sense if someone is attracted to me? ›

The clues aren't always obvious, but you can see some of them by paying attention. When someone finds you physically attractive, it shows by always making eye contact, always wanting to touch you physically, and frequently initiating conversations.

Why am I so drawn to someone? ›

The same interests and values may also be a powerful way people are drawn to someone. When two people have similar hobbies, goals, or beliefs, it might create a sense of connection and compatibility. Emotional connection is another reason why people may feel drawn to each other.

How do you know when two people are in love? ›

Here's a look at 25 attraction between two people signs.
  1. They tease you about things. ...
  2. They make excuses to touch you. ...
  3. You care what the other person thinks. ...
  4. You miss them when you aren't together. ...
  5. You can't stop smiling. ...
  6. You don't notice others around you. ...
  7. They pay attention to you. ...
  8. You laugh when you're with them.
Sep 27, 2021

What does true love feel like for a man? ›

But in a more literal sense, according to experts, true love feels like all the best parts of any great relationship all wrapped up into one. ​​“Being truly in love with someone often feels like having a genuine friendship with the added bonus of ongoing attraction and sexual intimacy,” Dr.

How a man shows love without saying it? ›

For example, he holds your hand, has his arms around you, hugs you, always sit close to you, etc. 2- He puts a lot of efforts to make you feel loved. He brings random gifts for you, sings a song for you on a special day, makes time to talk to you anyhow, makes sudden plans, etc. 3- He always listens to you properly.

How do men feel when they are in love? ›

02/6Feeling 'high' in love

As opposed to what you're thinking right now, men actually feel very elevated and in a state of bliss when they are with their partners. The brain produces a high level of a chemical called phenylethylamine (PEA) that makes people feel falling in love addictive and high.

Are emotions just chemical reactions in the brain? ›

Emotions are controlled by the levels of different chemicals in your brain, but there is no one "love" or "hate" chemical. At any given moment, dozens of chemical messengers, or neurotransmitters, are active.

What does fleeting love mean? ›

Fleeting love may last more than a moment, but it won't stay for very long, and that's why it's called fleeting. Definitions of fleeting. adjective. lasting for a markedly brief time.

Is love hormone oxytocin or dopamine? ›

Oxytocin is a hormone and a neurotransmitter that is involved in childbirth and breast-feeding. It is also associated with empathy, trust, sexual activity, and relationship-building. It is sometimes referred to as the “love hormone,” because levels of oxytocin increase during hugging and orgasm.

What neurotransmitter causes love? ›

Dopamine is the primary pleasure neurotransmitter of the brain's reward circuitry, which plays an important role in both sexual arousal and romantic feelings.

Why do we fall in love scientifically? ›

The initial happy feelings of being in love is stimulated by 3 chemicals in the brain: noradrenaline that stimulates adrenaline production causing that racing heart and sweaty palms; dopamine, the feel-good chemical; and phenylethylamine that is released when we're near our crush, giving us butterflies in our tummies.

Does emotions come from brain or heart? ›

Feelings have so much to do with the heart, as they do with the brain. It's actually a two-way relationship. Our emotions change the signals the brain sends to the heart and the heart responds to the brain in complex ways.

Why is romantic love so fleeting? ›

Love Changes Over Time

One of the reasons why people think that they aren't in love anymore is because love usually changes over time: the feelings that are there in the beginning stages don't last forever. When you are first in love, often everything seems right with the world.

Is being in love just a feeling? ›

Love is not a feeling (though we certainly do feel love), it's an intimate emotional bond that strengthens over time through a series of vulnerable and supportive actions. We take actions that build love. We take actions that strengthen love. And over time, the intimate emotional bond that is love will happen.

What is it called when you fall in love really fast? ›

Falling in love easily, quickly, and often is called "emophilia." This tendency can lead people to miss critical red flags, so they may be prone to entering unhealthy relationships.

Does orgasm release oxytocin? ›

Most of the studies found higher levels of oxytocin during the orgasm or ejaculation. Given the sexual arousal evoked by self-stimulation in which sexual fantasies play an important role, it should be possible to postulate for a role of the oxytocin in sexual desire.

Where do you touch a girl to release oxytocin? ›

Its best to begin with light small touches on the arms and hands, to make the oxytocin effect kick in. Take her hand while taking to her (never ask for it, just take it), play thumb wrestling or pretend to read her palm or just play footsies under the table.

What triggers love in a man? ›

Physical attraction, sexual compatibility, empathy, and emotional connection are key to making a man fall in love with a woman.

Why does serotonin drop when in love? ›

It's also associated with euphoria and increases emotional dependency. Serotonin: At this stage your serotonin levels actually drop which cranks up your desire. It's thought that the increase in testosterone as you fall in love can suppress your serotonin.

What hormone makes a man fall in love? ›

According to love biologist Dawn Maslar, the chemicals dopamine and vasopressin are vital for a man to start falling in love, whereas it's oxytocin and dopamine for women. Oxytocin, often nicknamed the love or cuddle hormone, also plays an important role in men but at a later stage.


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