The Neurobiology of Love

How your brain falls in and out of love.

The hypothalamus

Neurobiology of Love

Love and relationships are a universal human experience, and people have been trying to study and understand them for thousands of years. From neurobiology, to anthropology, many fascinating breakthroughs have been made.


Neurobiologists study love in the context of neural pathways, chemical processes, and hormones. One of the most important chemicals associated with love is dopamine, which creates feelings of joy and euphoria. This can be seen in activities such as eating chocolate or riding a roller coaster, and also when we fall in love.

It all comes down to the brain’s reward system. Dopamine makes us feel good about love, which is why we try so hard to seek it out. This is an evolutionary advantage. By urging us to bond and reproduce, our brains are encouraging us to pass on genes and support the species as a whole.

Early Love Theories: James Papez

James Papez was a 20th century neuroanatomist who made a significant contribution to the understanding of emotions, particularly the concept of love.


He believed that emotions were caused by the interplay of different areas of the brain. He came up with the theory of the limbic system: a circuit of structures located deep within our brains, including the hippocampus, amygdala, and hypothalamus. According to his theory, when we experience strong feelings for somebody else, these structures are activated, and create a primal, emotional response.

Today, researchers continue to explore the neural basis of love, drawing on Papez’s work and other early theories to better understand the intricate connection between emotions, thoughts, and behavior. For example, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans have shown that when people look at pictures of their loved ones, there is a surge of activity in the areas of the brain associated with dopamine.

The Science of Lust


When scientists study the neurobiology of love, they often divide the subject into three categories: lust, or sex drive; romantic attraction; and long-term attachment.

When it comes to lust, fMRI scans have found that the hypothalamus plays an important role, by stimulating the production of estrogen and testosterone. These are often thought of as female and male hormones, but that isn’t true. Testosterone is used to increase sex drive in men and women alike.

During intercourse, another hormone is released: oxytocin. This is often referred to as ‘the love hormone’, and it plays a vital role in partner bonding, and creating a feeling of mutual trust.

The Science of Attraction


Romantic attraction is closely related to feelings of lust, but the two affect the brain in very different ways. Attraction is all about dopamine and reward pathways – it fills us with a feeling of ecstasy and joy.

Dopamine is a natural stimulant, which is why falling in love can almost feel like a drug-induced high. It is released more and more as we spend time with someone we find physically attractive. It also helps with focus and attention, which is why we struggle to get that person out of our heads.

Noradrenaline is also released. This hormone is associated with ‘fight or flight’ responses, and leads to a fluttering heart, sweaty palms, and sometimes even insomnia. These potent hormones make it harder for people to think rationally. Again: love affects the brain like a drug.

The Science of Attachment

As relationships develop into something long-term and committed, the cocktail of hormones linked to lust and attraction starts to slow down.

In its place, oxytocin takes center stage. It is released during sex, but also during other types of skin-on-skin contact, like cuddling and holding hands. Oxytocin helps to build a sense of mutual trust, by reducing stress levels, and making us feel more content and secure. Oxytocin is also released during breastfeeding, to create a similar type of bond.

Another important hormone in forming long-term attachments is vasopressin. This one is not fully understood, but it is believed to encourage monogamous bonding. From an evolutionary perspective, it would help to keep two parents together in order to raise the kids.

The Science of Jealousy

Love and relationships are not only associated with positive emotions. Jealousy and rejection are two painful emotions associated with relationships, and researchers have studied how these emotions work on a neurobiological level.

Jealousy is linked to the frontal lobe, which is involved in regulating emotions. Jealousy is probably meant to encourage people to fight for their mate – another evolutionary, reproductive benefit. In certain people, this part of the brain becomes unhealthily active, leading to a disorder known as delusional jealousy.

Studies have also found that feelings of rejection are processed by the brain in a similar way to real, physical pain. That is probably why people use phrases like ‘broken hearted’ – on a neurological level, that is exactly how it feels. Like any form of pain, this is meant to help us learn from our rejections, and take steps to avoid a similar situation in the future.

Love and memory

Love and memory is a topic of great interest in the field of psychology and neuroscience. Research in this area has found that love and memory are inextricably linked.

For example, when we are in love, our brains release a surge of hormones that can enhance our memory recall, but which makes us more likely to remember positive experiences and forget negative ones. This effect can lead to a distorted view of the relationship, where we recall it as being more positive than it actually was.

This is especially common after breakups, with people often thinking back to relationships with a sense of nostalgia, even though those relationships were toxic and negative at the time. This may be a kind of defense mechanism to protect us from the traumatic memories of breaking up.

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