Love – the subject of a million songs, films, books, art…People have died, lived, done insane, out-of-character things – all for love.
How exactly does falling in love turn us from sane, rational individuals to bewildering, irrational ones?
Neuroscience has so much to offer in the way of explaining the inexplicable behavior we display when we fall in love.
When we fall in love, our brain undergoes significant changes, triggering emotions, thoughts, and behaviors that can seem downright bewildering.
Spoiler alert: it’s all chemical.
Let’s explore 8 signs someone is falling in love, according to neuroscience:
1) They stare at the person constantly
Of course! When someone has captivated your heart, wouldn’t you want to stare at them forever?
(Another spoiler alert: this enamored state won’t last forever – no longer than three years, according to biological anthropologist Dr. Helen Fisher.)
But anyway, during the initial stage, our body produces phenylethylamine (PEA), a chemical associated with falling in love. Thus, it’s aptly dubbed “the chemical of love”.
The thing is, PEA is a natural amphetamine, which means it’s going to exhilarate us, almost like we’re being swept off our feet.
That explains the common phrases used to describe a person in love, such as “drunk in love” or “high on love”.
2) They idealize the person they’re in love with
If you’re that person, then good for you – you can do no wrong!
A person who’s in love tends to focus only on the positive qualities of their beloved.
Well, because love doesn’t just spark positive feelings, care of the feel-good chemicals dopamine and oxytocin. It also deactivates the neural pathway responsible for negative emotions.
Basically, when we’re in love, the neural mechanisms that allow us to make critical judgments or assessments of other people shut down. Out for lunch or the foreseeable future.
According to Harvard scientist Dr. Richard Schwartz, “That’s the neural basis for the ancient wisdom ‘love is blind’.”
And you know what?
That’s a good sign. According to the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, idealizing partners usually leads to a more successful relationship.
3) They daydream about their beloved
This should come as no surprise. When we’re in love, we’re consumed with thoughts of this fabulous, fabulous person.
Because, once again, chemicals.
Our serotonin levels in the brain change, which results in the obsessive-compulsive behaviors associated with infatuation and falling in love.
Aside from that, we’ve got elevated levels of dopamine which essentially makes us less focused on irrelevant tasks.
By irrelevant, I’m talking about things not related to our love life. You have to remember that when we’re in love, the world is upside down. Work and other important matters become the irrelevant ones here!
In short, the only thing that’s relevant to someone falling in love is the intoxicating love they feel. So that’s what pulls all their focus. That’s why they daydream and think about the person all the time.
Who cares about those quickly-piling-up tasks on your Trello board? You’re in love!
This brings me to my next point…
4) They abandon their usual activities
They hate dancing, but suddenly they’re out doing the salsa with their beloved.
They used to go fishing on weekends, but now the weekends are completely, permanent-ink-penned in for back-to-back dates with the object of their affection.
It all has to do with the brain’s reward system. When you engage in an activity that the brain perceives as beneficial, dopamine is released, creating a feel-good sensation that encourages you to repeat the behavior.
If something feels good, you naturally want more of that, whatever it is. In this case, it’s your precious time with that person.
5) They exhibit a whole range of physical manifestations
Flushed cheeks. Racing heartbeats. Sweaty palms.
Sounds like addiction, right?
Well, with all of those chemicals going on inside the lovestruck person’s body, is this still surprising?
Adrenaline and norephinephrine are the main culprits here.
According to Dr. Kat Van Kirk in CNN, “This can lead to having a physical sensation of craving and the desire to focus your attention on that specific person.”.
6) They have unstable emotions
Similarly, one’s emotional landscape shifts from one state to another. From exhilaration, euphoria, and increased energy to loss of appetite, anxiety, and feelings of despair…
In fact, when it’s really intense, it’s similar to how drug addicts behave, according to an article in Philosophy, Psychiatry and Psychology.
Neurobiology and neurochemistry studies suggest that “the subjective state (or states) of “being in love” is intimately tied to characteristic biochemical reactions occurring within the brain.”
Indeed, love is a drug, like Kesha said!
7) They become emotionally dependent on the other person
It’s funny how love can turn us into (sorry to say) bumbling idiots who seem to forget just how independent we are.
I mean, that’s exactly how I was every time I fell in love back when I was still single. I’ve always been independent, but whenever I met someone and fell in love, I’d feel so out of control.
Overnight, I’d lose my sense of self, as if I couldn’t function without the guy. I’d morph into this creature who was so possessive and jealous and couldn’t bear to be separated from him.
(Don’t worry, that version of me has passed. Like I said, these “falling in love” signs don’t last forever.)
I won’t tell you not to be like that. Chances are, you won’t be able to control it anyway.
Dr. Helen Fisher did an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) of the brains of people who were in love. What they found – activation in several brain areas, including forebrain areas like the cingulate gyrus.
What’s special about this area of the brain is that it’s the part that plays a role in cocaine cravings. No wonder we get so obsessive and possessive!
What’s more, when someone tells us to “snap out of it”, we can’t. Because of this next sign…
8) They can’t control what they feel
Let me backtrack a bit to my story above and repeat this: “I’d feel so out of control.”
That’s exactly how a person falling in love would feel. As if they get engulfed by those waves of passion and longing, and there’s nothing they can do about it.
Dr. Fisher’s work confirms this as well. She and her team found that people who said they were in love also reported that their passion was involuntary and uncontrollable.
And strangely, that feeling of helplessness gets even more intense when the object of their love rejects them.
Among other findings, they found activity in the brain region associated with deep attachment to another individual.
Think about it – why do we have crimes of passion?
As Dr. Fisher said in her TED Talk:
“When you’ve been rejected in love, not only are you engulfed with feelings of romantic love, but you’re feeling deep attachment to this individual. Moreover, this brain circuit for reward is working, and you’re feeling intense energy, intense focus, intense motivation and the willingness to risk it all, to win life’s greatest prize.”
It’s funny how we connect those intense falling-in-love feelings to the heart, when really, it’s the brain who’s responsible for it all.
Looking at everything that goes on inside our bodies when we fall in love is enough to leave anyone breathless.
Thinking back to my own crazy days of falling in love, I see how I couldn’t have stopped myself from falling in love even if I wanted to – all those chemicals wouldn’t allow it!
But you know what strikes me most about all these? How wonderful it is that our bodies work this way, to create such a powerful, all-consuming emotion. It’s almost like a magic trick that mixes together the right cocktail of hormones and neurotransmitters to sweep us off our feet.
For all the pain love brings, I say, it’s always worth it. And for whatever it’s worth, it’s a lovely reminder of how beautifully complex we are as humans.