What happens in the brain when we are attracted to someone new? Our brain is programmed for attraction. The brain is a chemical factory looking for love.
Using sophisticated imaging equipment, researchers have found that the amygdala, an area of the brain that controls emotions and motivation, is much more activated in men than women, even though both genders reported similar levels of interest in love and romance. It is also no mistake that women spend more time caring for their physical appearance. But how they look has much more impact on a men’s brain than the other way around.
Men tend to be attracted to symmetrical, fertile, healthy, younger-looking women. A man’s genetic brain is looking at a woman and deciding whether or not he wants his children to carry her genes. Unconsciously we look for signs of health, such as clear skin and bright eyes.
A woman’s brain is much less interested in how a man looks than in how he thinks and acts. Women often look to a man’s ability to care for her and her children. The trappings of a successful man, in whatever society, are more important than just his physical appearance. As always, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Androgens help trigger the development of the testicles and penis in the male fetus. They jump-start the process of puberty and influence the male sex characteristics, the development of facial, body, and pubic hair; deepening of the voice; and muscle development. After puberty, testosterone plays a role in the sex drive. Deficiencies of testosterone may cause a drop in sexual desire, and excessive testosterone may heighten sexual interest in both sexes.
Estrogens are the sex hormones produced primarily by a female’s ovaries that stimulate the growth of a girl’s sex organs, as well as her breasts and pubic hair, known as secondary sex characteristics. Estrogens also regulate the functioning of the menstrual cycle. Considering when women with deficient desire are given estrogen and testosterone separately, the increase in desire is not as dramatic as when they are given the two hormones together, estrogen is thought to play a synergistic role with testosterone in increasing lustful desire.
Nitric oxide is a chemical released by the genitals when you are “turned on”. Drugs like Viagra and Cialis work by stimulating the release of nitric oxide. Though these medications can work very well for some men, results of the studies that have been done thus far on women have not been compelling. Also, because these medications affect blood vessels, caution must be taken in giving them to individuals with blood pressure problems or heart disease.
Have you ever noticed how you have been attracted to the way someone of the opposite sex smells while another’s scent may completely repel you?
Epinephrine and Norepinephrine
The feeling of zest and excitement comes from these chemicals as they help to facilitate both sexual arousal and orgasm. High levels of these chemicals are associated with anxiety, and low levels with depression. Chronic stress, low levels of the sex hormones estrogen, testosterone, and progesterone, a sedentary lifestyle, poor diet, and genetics can all lead to low levels of epinephrine and norepinephrine, creating interference with “the laws of attraction.”
Certain medications, such as stimulants or supplements like the amino acid tyrosine, can help to increase levels of these chemicals in those who have a deficiency. Medications and forms of therapy including hypnosis and biofeedback are also used to decrease these levels when they get too high, such as when individuals refrain from asking someone who they find attractive out on a date because they are afraid they will get overly anxious, their palms and face will get sweaty, or they will fumble over their words.
The most important and well-studied neurotransmitter associated with infatuation is dopamine. Produced in the central part of the brain, dopamine is associated with pleasure, motivation, and concentration. It has been shown to work in the reward centers of the brain. Proper amounts are associated with healthy motivation and sexual drive. Individuals feel “sexy” when they have enough of this chemical.
While high levels of dopamine are associated with attraction, low levels are associated with certain types of depression, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and excitement-seeking or high-risk-taking behavior. Both cocaine and stimulant medications, such as methylphenidate (Ritalin), have been shown to enhance its production. Bupropion (Wellbutrin) is an antidepressant that enhances dopamine availability to the brain as well as enhances sexual function. Also, certain amino acid supplements like tyrosine can be used to increase dopamine levels and potentially sexual function as well.
Serotonin is known as the “feel good” neurotransmitter and is produced in the mid-brain and brain stem. Normal serotonin levels help people have healthy moods and motivation. Serotonin is involved with mood regulation and emotional flexibility. Low serotonin levels have been associated with depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, impulsivity, and excessive activity in the brain’s anterior cingulate gyrus (ACG). Low levels have also been associated with new love.
Unfortunately, this makes lovers vulnerable to high anxiety levels and moodiness, common in the initial stages of a relationship. When serotonin levels are low and the ACG works too hard, people tend to get stuck on certain thoughts or behaviors. High serotonin levels can also be a problem and are associated with lowered motivation.
Remember the last time you fell in love. All you could think about was your new love, and no matter how busy you were, you could always find time for her. Your moods were up when you thought about her and then down when she didn’t answer her cell phone the first time you called. You felt more reckless and your friends wondered about your judgment. Lowered levels of serotonin make you vulnerable to depression if the relationship ends prematurely.
Dopamine and serotonin tend to counterbalance each other in the brain. When dopamine levels are high, such as in new love, people tend to be motivated and driven toward dating behaviors that bring people closer together. Higher levels of dopamine cause lower levels of serotonin, which have been associated with obsessive thinking, hence the feeling of falling in love. When serotonin levels are high, people tend to have lowered motivation and an almost “I don’t care” attitude.
Phenylethylamine (PEA), an adrenaline-like substance, the chemical found in chocolate, speeds up the flow of information between nerve cells and is triggered in the process of attraction to help us pay attention to the love feelings. PEA is known as the “love molecule” because it is what initiates the flood of chemicals into the brain along with norepinephrine and dopamine to create the feelings of euphoria and infatuation when we are highly attracted to someone.