Brain Health: Shades of Love: The Science of Emotions and the Brain

by Taeh A. Ward, Ph.D.

Valentine’s Day is associated with various traditions including a celebration of affection and love. Although thinking of love does not naturally evoke thoughts of scientific research, there is a growing body of research which suggests that being in a relationship may hold benefits for our health and cognitive performance. 

The science of love involves chemicals that send messages to produce changes within the body including hormones and neurotransmitters. While hormones act for longer periods of time, neurotransmitters act and dissipate more quickly. The basic chemicals in the brain associated with falling in love vary over time beginning with lust, during which changes occur in sex hormones including testosterone and estrogen. Research indicates that variations in these hormones can impact cognitive performance and behavior.

During the attraction stage of love, there are increases in the activity of neurotransmitters such as dopamine. Dopamine plays a number of roles in the body involving motor movement, mood, feelings of pleasure and satisfaction, reward seeking, cognitive control, attention, learning, and memory. Dopamine can contribute to feelings of alertness, focus, motivation, and happiness. During the phase of attraction, norepinephrine is also released. Norepinephrine is involved in maintaining alertness and arousal, sleep, dreaming, promoting vigilance, and may enhance the formation of new memories and memory recall. Some research on attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder suggests that individuals with low levels of norepinephrine and dopamine may have more difficulty focusing. The love stage of attraction is also associated with release of serotonin, a neurotransmitter involved in mood and memory. Some studies suggest that serotonin is involved in neuroplasticity and may influence rate of learning.

In a lasting relationship, attraction eventually moves into the stage of attachment where a stronger commitment or bond is developed. During the attachment stage of love, higher levels of oxytocin are released. Research indicates that oxytocin can contribute to positive social behaviors such as trust, relaxation, and psychological stability. Oxytocin also appears to reduce stress including anxiety, which can in turn enhance cognitive performance. In some animal research studies, monogamous partners when separated demonstrated increases in cardiac stress, anxiety, and depression which improved when oxytocin was increased. During the attachment phase of love, vasopressin is also released, which is linked to behavior that produces long-term relationship bonding. Studies also suggest that vasopressin may have benefits for short-term memory. 

Some research shows that people in marriages which improve over time tend to have healthier weights and lower cholesterol, while people in marriages in decline may have higher rates of hypertension. Studies also suggest that as love blossoms, dopamine levels may stay elevated, helping to maintain benefits for mood and relaxation. Some research indicates that loneliness can negatively impact health by increasing inflammation, anxiety, and cortisol (stress hormone) through triggering the stress response. Chronic exposure to high cortisol levels has been linked to accelerated cognitive decline including suboptimal learning and memory, speed of thinking, language, and other functions. As being in a securely attached relationship can potentially reduce stress levels and lower cortisol, this may help explain why some research shows that married people have greater longevity, lower rates of substance use, and less depression. These findings also suggest social benefits of relationships such as partners encouraging each other to seek medical care, holding each other accountable for better adherence to exercise and healthy lifestyle, and noticing red flags for potential medical problems. 

In addition, some studies show that the benefits of relationships including stress reduction and longer life expectancy are not specific to the marital or romantic relationship and are also linked to relationships with friends and family. From a cognitive standpoint, socialization holds additional benefits including the potential for greater mental stimulation through use of attention, memory, expressive language, and various other cognitive processes. While relationships can also have a downside, seeking and sustaining healthy and supportive relationships of various types may help enhance brain function as well as medical and mental health.

Dr. Taeh Ward, a clinical neuropsychologist at Pinehurst Neuropsychology, can be reached at 910-420-8041 or by visiting pinehurstneuropsychology.com