Lou has lost weight. He has dark circles under his eyes from insufficient sleep but does not look tired and appears to be happy. He is focused at work and getting a lot done. He is also spending more time on his guitar and writing a new song almost every week.
A friend that Lou had not seen for a while wonders if Lou has slipped back into his cocaine habit. The dopamine level in Lou’s brain is consistently high these days.Dopamine is a neurotransmitter produced by the brain and plays a starring role within the pleasure circuits of the human mind. Cocaine increases the level of dopamine in the brain resulting in feelings of happiness, improved focus, increased energy as well as lower needs for food and sleep.
Lou’s mother, who sees him sporadically, worries that he has developed a disorder because he is displaying new behavior patterns. He spends a lot of time in his childhood room ordering and re-ordering things. He either taps his foot constantly when sitting down or paces back and forth in the living room when talking to her. She has not said anything because he also seems to be happier than usual and she wonders if the changes might be the effect of his recent job promotion.
His mother reads a lot of popular psychology articles and thinks that he might have a mild case of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
Can you guess what is going on in Lou’s brain?
Lou is not taking cocaine.
Lou does not have OCD but it might be difficult to discern if a doctor only looks at the serotonin level in his brain. A psychiatrist at the University of Pisa, Dr. Donatella Marazziti, observed twenty couples who had been in love for six months or less. She discovered that the serotonin level of these lovers were similar to people who had OCD. This is not scientifically conclusive evidence, but the story has become popular on the internet.
Lou’s brain looks like the brain of someone in love or more accurately, it is the brain of someone experiencing strong romantic and sexual attraction beyond lust. It is being powered by biological forces that have evolved over millions of years to provide survival strategies. Dopamine surge and serotonin depletion are just two of the current hormonal changes in his brain. There are several other chemicals dances occurring in his mind.
Lou is in the second stage of love.
There are many stages of love and each one consists of a complimentary chemical component. The initial stage of lust is managed by several chemicals but primarily by the sex hormones testosterone and estrogen, in both men and women. The next stage, Lou’s stage, is the romantic feedback loop where positive or negative responses from the romantic partner cause a change in levels.
If things works out for Lou, his body will get off the chemical roller-coaster and revert back to its normal level of the second stage chemical cocktails. If unsuccessful, the ex-lovers will experience a crash similar to those experienced by cocaine addicts when they try to quit.
The emotional attachment hormone, oxytocin, is released during orgasm in both men and women and starts to play a more prominent role as the attraction chemicals begin to level off and the lovers enter the next stage of romance. There is another hormone, vassopresin, which is released during sexual intercourse. It is naturally produced to regulate the retention of water within the body but the additional levels of this chemical might be responsible for the desire for monogamy in men. A higher level of vassopresin has shown to cause fidelity in prairie voles but a similar definitive corroboration has not been made in human beings.
The second stage of love can be as disturbing as a cocaine habit and OCD. Fortunately there’s the hope that as the relationship progresses, oxytocin in the brain will help lead to a happy, but calmer, non-manic state. There are, of course, people who become addicted to the rush of the powerful attraction stage and choose to repeat the cycle, just like a cocaine addict, instead of opting out to the more peaceful alternative.
Are the chemicals choosing our life for us or are our choices invoking the chemicals? The answer is probably not a simple equation but a continuous circular movement with no distinct beginning or end.
This is the first in a series of columns which glimpse into our constantly changing mass of organic circuits that not only makes our life possible but infuses it with mysterious textures.
The neuroscience consultant for this column, Dr. Nicola Wolfe, earned her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychopharmacology from Harvard University and has taught neuroscience courses for over 20 years at various universities.