Let’s Talk about Love (And Friendship)

April 2024

We’ve probably all experienced some form of lasting meaningful connection (romantic or otherwise) with someone outside of our immediate family. Remember when you were getting to know this person? How excited you felt when you planned a meeting? The anticipation or maybe even the overwhelming agony you felt during the time leading up to the event? How about after years of being in relationship with someone- knowing you can call anytime and unload about the tough day you just had or share your deepest anxieties without fear of rejection. We all need that person we can collapse on the couch next to, say nothing, and feel comforted despite the silence. Turns out these connections are a fundamental part of our biology; and one that provides us with numerous health benefits throughout our lifetime.

The neuroscience behind love and connection involves different hormones and neurotransmitters depending on the stage of connection you are in. The majority of neuronal exchanges associated with love happen in the most basic and primitive parts of our brains; an indication that the need for deep relationships is fundamental to our biological wellbeing. When people in the throes of intense romantic love, lust, or even deep friendship stared at picturing of their loved ones during MRI scan, increased activity can be seen in the caudate nucleus and the ventral tegmental area- both associated with primitive neurological reward systems.

In the early stages of love, you may find yourself obsessing over your presentation, reading and rereading texts to catch any nuanced language, or even feeling dread alongside your excitement before a date. This is because the hormone involved in early activation of love is cortisol. The stress of early relationships induces a kind of sleepless, obsessive-compulsive state of being- which explains the sweaty palms and butterflies. Shared experiences during times of high stress can promote early bonding. Have you ever heard you should take a first or second date to an amusement park or scary movie?

As connection grows, the stress decreases and we begin to bond over shared values and even disclosed vulnerabilities. These connections are mediated by dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and vasopressin. Dopamine and serotonin feed our reward systems prompting us to continue seeking interaction with our loved ones. Oxytocin plays a huge role in feelings of attachment and bonding and is released primarily during physical touch. We are all aware of the importance of this hormone in parents and infants, but is equally important to our overall wellbeing as adults. Physical touch does not have to be romantic in nature to trigger oxytocin release- hugs are a classic example of this. Over time, vasopressin partially replaces the role of oxytocin and is associated with long term connection or seasoned relationships.

The neurobiology of love and connection has been proven to decrease incidence of cardiovascular disease, promote immune function, improve chronic pain, enhance sleep and even increase life expectancy. As life gets busy and our connections with friends, spouses, and other beloved confidants stretch thin, it is all too easy to delay attachment in favor of rest or isolation. Love and belonging are among some of our most basic needs. So make a phone call, send a text, write a letter, or reach out in some other way to the ones you love. Make time to stay connected. For your wellbeing and theirs.