Young Love's Illusion

The Chemical Profile of Falling in Love

When a person falls in love, her amygdala is hyperstimulated. The amygdala is part of the brain’s limbic system and is associated with memory, making decisions, and processing emotions.

When someone falls in love, an intense firing of neurons in the amygdala triggers a surge of hormones and neurotransmitters for adapting to stress.

Unpredictability, mystery and sexual attraction make the amygdala go into hyperactivation. Via neurotransmitters, this signals to the adrenal glands that something exciting, scary, mysterious and unpredictable is going on.

This, in turn, results in the adrenal glands pumping a surge of adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol into the bloodstream. Via the bloodstream, adrenaline increases heart and breathing rates, noradrenaline produces body heat, making you sweat, and cortisol provides extra energy for muscles to use.

While love causes feelings of stress, it also causes feelings of pleasure.

If someone falls in love and believes her love may be requited, parts of her brain take on the chemistry of a brain on cocaine. Like common antidepressants, cocaine is a reuptake inhibitor for pleasure-causing neurotransmitters serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine.

Unlike antidepressants, cocaine works instantly. It completely blocks neurotransporters, which normally mediate the removal of neurotransmitters from the synaptic cleft between neurons. When neurotransporters are blocked, serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine flood the synaptic cleft resulting in physiological ecstasy.

Norepinephrine increases energy. Serotonin creates a feeling of satiation and self-confidence. Intense feelings of romantic love activate the striatum, the dopamine-releasing region which is more reactive in adolescents. Dopamine creates a feeling of joy and reinforces behaviors that trigger it.

Even when love is not pathological but just novel, the brain experiences it as if high on cocaine. (Brogaard, forthcoming) New love provides instant feel-good brain chemicals, making it attractive to those who want to feel good instantly.

People in love may experience characteristics of addiction. One of these is withdrawal. When a person is alienated by her beloved or her feelings of new love fades, the source of intense feel-good chemicals is gone.

Like withdrawal from addictive substances, love withdrawal causes dopamine, serotonin, and epinephrine to plummet all at once. The neurotransmitters can sometimes decrease to lower levels than the person’s baseline.

This decrease causes negative moods and physical exhaustion. In some cases, people may quickly find another love interest, becoming addicted to “the chase” or prospect of love. In other cases, an individual may go through a healthy period of grief. At a harmful level, a person may have despair, obsession, and even suicidal thoughts.

Freud's Interpretation

Perhaps Freud's most original discovery was the phenomenon of transference. This describes the human tendency to make our early relationships (like those with parents and siblings) into the blueprints we use for every subsequent relationship.

As a result, we don't accurately "see" anyone after a certain point early in our development. Rather, we see them through the prism of the experiences we've already had.

The concept of transference at once destroys faith in personal relations and explains why they are tragic: We can't know each other because of our own hang-ups. This brings up the specter of relativism. There are no absolutes or truths beyond my interpretation.

As Freud observed, when a patient is in psychoanalysis, he or she will often transfer certain feelings onto the analyst.

Sometimes those can be feelings of anger or frustration or distrust. Sometimes, they're even feelings of amorous love — perhaps it has something to do with already being horizontal.

The solution? He would explain to his female patients that the love they felt for him was a normal part of the treatment, but also something unreal and hallucinatory.

In a 1915 paper, Freud went on to propose that all romantic love is like that — unreal and hallucinatory.

Isn't what we mean by "falling in love" a kind of sickness and craziness, an illusion, a blindness to what the loved person is really like, a state arising from infantile origins?

I tend to agree with this view. So would the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, I suspect — he wrote that lovers "keep on using each other to hide their own fates."

Yet, how do you explain happy marriages that last for years and years? That can't simply be an illusion!

Maybe they're just two people with compatible illusions.