Thursday, February 27, 2014

Biochemistry of attraction and substance abuse

This post will contain a bit of science geekery. I want to get into a bit of neurochemistry as it relates to drug use and romantic relationships. First, a small lesson in neurochemistry:

The pleasure center of our brain is a small area known as the amygdala. The amygdala is the area of the brain that is associated with pleasure. It is the hedonistic influence of our brain, and it rewards us with the secretion of neurotransmitters that cause us to feel euphoric and stimulated by stimulating the cells of the VTA section of the brain, which causes those cells to secrete the neurotransmitters. These neurotransmitters are chiefly dopamine, seratonin, and norepinephrine. These substances are responsible for every pleasurable feeling that we have. This reward system is crucial for individual and support elementary processes such as drinking, eating and reproduction. It also plays a key role in behavior and memory.

The counterbalance to this is the inhibitory center of the brain, the frontal lobe. This area of the brain inhibits the release of the aforementioned neurotransmitters. This area is the part of your brain that tells you, "I know that this sounds like a good idea, but I wouldn't do that if I were you." This area of the brain is not fully developed in most people until they are in their mid 20's, and is less developed in men than it is in women, which is why young men tend to do the stupid things you see in the Jackass movies.The cortex does this by causing the release of the neurotransmitter serotonin. Serotonin, instead of controlling behavior with that "rush" of excitement and euphoria, regulates behavior with a long term feeling of contentment and happiness.

What does this have to do with relationships and with drugs? When we take certain drugs, opiates for example, the opiate bypasses the amygdala, and directly causes the cells of the VTA to release their dopamine. (other drugs have different mechanisms, but they all have the same end result: increased levels of one or more of those three neurotransmitters) This has several profound effects on the body: the rush, the feelings of pleasure, flushing of the skin, dry mouth, and other effects. In other words, couples in this stage of love focus intently on the relationship and often on little else, very much similar to drug addicts.

When we are attracted to a person, the brain responds by rewarding us with all three neurotransmitters at the same time, just in smaller doses than drugs do. Now what this does is that it causes the same feelings that the drugs do, just with less intensity. The advantage to this, is that the effect lasts much longer, which is why the "honeymoon phase" of relationships lasts about 6 to 8 months.

The effect of meeting a woman is more pronounced and occurs faster in men than it women, both because of the less developed male frontal cortex, and because of the visually oriented nature of men. This is why men tend to fall faster and then spend their time trying to impress the woman that is the subject of their desire: They are being compelled by the chemicals in their blood to please their intended mate, and will do nearly anything to maintain that dopamine induced high.

 As is well known, falling in love often leads to emotional and physiological instability. You bounce between exhilaration, euphoria, increased energy, sleeplessness, loss of appetite, trembling, a racing heart and accelerated breathing, as well as anxiety, panic and feelings of despair when your relationship suffers even the smallest setback. These mood swings parallel the behavior of drug addicts, and are caused by the frontal cortex and amygdala doing their thing. And indeed, when in-love people are shown pictures of their loved ones, it fires up the same regions of the brain that activate when a drug addict takes a hit. Being in love, researchers say, is a form of addiction.

When we are not with the object of our desire, the frontal cortex is suppressed, serotonin levels drop, and we find ourselves obsessing  over them. People who are in love report that they spend, on average, more than 85 percent of their waking hours musing over their "love object." Intrusive thinking, as this form of obsessive behavior is called, is a sign of reduced serotonin levels. This reduced serotonin level causes emotional dependency, resulting in feelings of possessiveness, jealousy, fear of rejection, and separation anxiety.

Unfortunately, the feelings of being in love usually don't last forever. It's an impermanent state that either evolves into a long-term, codependent relationship that psychologists call "attachment," or it dissipates, and the relationship dissolves. This is the result of neurotransmitter levels returning to normal.

Now you know.

1 comment:

Annie Mouse said...

are you aware of the serotonin-dopamine and chocolate connection?
A friend and I were talking once and she said that love was the only socially acceptable neurosis.

Go slow. There is time. be kind to yourself too.