The Chemistry of Love: What Causes Desire, Commitment, and the Pleasure of Love?

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During the physical act of love our body releases a number of chemicals. Actually if one would take a scan of someone’s brain during sex and show it to a neuroscientist, it would be difficult to tell if the brain was affected by drugs or sex. Sex is that powerful!

The first photo is a woman’s brain during sex and the picture below is a brain on cocaine.

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There’s a part of our brain that is called the “pleasure center,” and it lets us know what events are rewarding and reinforces that desire within us to perform those various events or acts again so we will be rewarded. Below are areas in the brain impacted by the pleasure center:

amygdala – regulates emotions

nucleus accumbens – controls the release of dopamine

ventral tegmental area (VTA) – actually releases the dopamine

cerebellum – controls muscle function

pituitary gland – releases beta-endorphins, which decrease pain; oxytocin, which increases feelings of trust; and vasopressin, which increases bonding (Source)

Sex and drugs work on the same area of the brain—the pleasure center. Dr. Gert Holstege stated that the brain during an orgasm looks much like the brain of a person taking heroin. He stated that “95 percent is the same” (Source)

Let’s look at some of the powerful chemicals that are involved before and during sexual activity.

Testosterone, known as the “male sex hormone,” is perhaps the most well-known chemical because it is responsible for boosting men’s sex drive and it increases aggressiveness when seeking after his partner. This chemical causes men to “win” a girl over or to take her out on the most memorable date. It also causes men to “woo” his date and to go to far extremes to impress her.

A common misconception is that women do not have testosterone but in fact they do. However, women only have about 10% the amount men do. (Source)

For an academic article on testosterone and risk click here.

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Estrogen is what gets a woman in the mood for sex—ignites her libido. This hormone peaks when a woman is ovulating—when she is the most fertile. When a woman’s estrogen levels are at their peak, that is when she views her partner the most attractive as well as her partner views her most attractive. Men also have estrogen, but at very low levels.

For an academic article on estrogen and hormonal changes click here.

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The chemical that is like adrenaline and creates the palpitating heart when excited is known as “norepinephrine.” World renowned sexologist Helen Fisher writes that dopamine and norepinephrine produce “elation, intense energy, sleeplessness, craving, loss of appetite and focused attention.” She also writes, “The human body releases the cocktail of love rapture only when certain conditions are met and … men more readily produce it than women, because of their more visual nature.” (Source)

To read more on norepinephrine click here.

During sex, the “pleasure chemical”, Dopamine, is released in the brain; this is the chemical that rewards the brain. For example, if you love to drink alcohol or eat chocolate, this chemical floods the brain and “rewards it.” The moment you see that chocolate cake, this hormone is released and you are more motivated than ever to enjoy its delight. And the more dopamine released the more you feel euphoric and energetic.

A group of researchers showed a picture of a man to women and asked them to rate his attractiveness. Was he “hot or not” type experiment. On another occasion they interviewed women who had just bungee jump off a bridge (an act that releases dopamine) and in every case the women who had just bungee jumped, rated the man in the picture more attractive. Dopamine is not only released during sex to reward one for the act, it is also released during other pleasurable experiences. Whenever dopamine is released, we have an overall sense of goodness about the world, energy, and a feeling of euphoria. (Source)

To read more on dopamine click here.

Another chemical released during sex is “vasopressin.” This chemical is known as the “monogamy chemical” because it motivates couples to work at staying together and only with one another. Those who have higher vasopressin levels tend be better communicators, work harder at the relationship, and “men with longer versions of the vasopressin receptor gene are more likely to be married, while those with shorter ones are more likely to be bachelors!” (See a fun Interview Here)

For an academic article on vasopressin click here.

Closely connected to vasopressin is oxytocin. Oxytocin is the hormone that bonds partners together. It really is the champion of the hormones. Because of this oxytocin deserves its own post. Click Here for the oxytocin post.

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  1. Pingback: Neuroreductionism about sex and love « Health and Medical News and Resources

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