This is your brain in love
What if I were to tell you that love only lasts 12 months?
I’m sitting in a coffee shop staring out of the window again and watching half of Brooklyn go by and I see someone, a woman, who catches my eye. She’s about 5’8″, brunette, with almond-shaped eyes. It’s close to Valentine’s Day, and I let my mind wander for a short while. I think about what might happen if she came into the coffee shop, ordered something, and happened to strike up conversation with me. I think about going on a first date, a second date, what she might look like in an old t-shirt of mine, all in the matter of twenty seconds or so. I snap out of it. I’m daydreaming.
This happens a lot. Probably more than I’d care to admit. After all, being a staggeringly attractive and exceedingly humble freelance journalist like myself has its perks – I get to work from home, and more often than not, coffee shops. The mind tends to wander.
But let’s just say that the coffee shop girl and I DO end up talking today, start dating, and eventually settle down. What if we were to fall in love? What then?
When someone first falls in love, a protein molecule called NGF – nerve growth factor – spikes in the brain. These feelings of “being in love” wear off after about a year. Twelve months. After that, one can only hope that you’re compatible and that interests in companionship overwhelm the brain’s reliance on the “thrill” of NGF. What NGF does is light up the ventral tegmental area and the caudate nucleus, two areas in the brain associated with reward, pleasure, and motivation. Ever feel like you can change the world when you’re newly in love? Much of it is due to the high levels of NGF. But NGF is just love’s initial rush, says neuroscientist Andrew Doan, MD, PhD, of Temecula, CA – “NGF is merely the hook that makes us want to get into a long term relationship. The human brain builds up a tolerance to NGF over time unless it’s stimulated by something new. People more susceptible to addiction are more likely than others to ‘fall in love’ – anything to get those NGF levels back up to where they were.”
It’s also worth mentioning is that “Love” – rather, the chemical reaction in the brain associated with it – reads much the same in brain scans as certain mental illnesses. In a 2006 study cited by National Geographic, researchers found that the brains of those heavily in love acted not dissimilarly than those of patients with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. This is your brain telling you something: don’t fall in love. It may hurt you.
So, was Robert Palmer right? Should I might as well face it? Am I “Addicted To Love“?
“No,” said Andrew, “I don’t think you can be.” The brain, he says, has a tolerance for activity. “You have to do the same thing over and over to create pathways… and have to do more of it to get the same high.” Therefore, it’s not entirely possible to get “addicted to love” – merely the feeling of it.
“Love is so complex because there multiple highs associated with it,” he added. “Buying flowers, dinner, those kind of things all contribute to the overall high. Healthy love is a sense of satisfaction distributed amongst unlimited activities.” However, those with an unhealthy perception of love will create pathways in their brains which will get to NGF quicker than those with healthy perceptions of love. While the person with an unhealthy perception of love might ultimately recieve bigger hits of NGF in the short term, over the long term they’ll grow more tired of love faster and faster.
People who overuse these connections in their brain will start to switch those behaviors out for more and more drastic measures. This perfectly explains philanderers like congressman Anthony Weiner, he says. “He became so addicted to the high of being wanted by a woman that he became addicted to the immediate gratification of feeling accepted. Which is why he continued online relationships with scores of women.”
I try and describe to him the woman that had walked by earlier. Brunette, almond eyes, hips that you could set your watch to, hair like a caramel waterfall, the kind of face that would make a man want to learn French. Could that be love? Is there such a thing as love at first sight?
“Yes and no,” he says, “When you see a woman walk by and you start getting twitterpated, you’re tapping into memories that have been encoded your whole life.” Clearly, I must have some happy childhood memories involving brunettes with almond shaped, he says. “Your eyeballs contain 1.2 million nerves each. That’s a huge response system for your brain to handle and it does so in about .1 of a second. So when you see a pretty brunette girl walking down the street your mind has already sent 2.4 million neural impulses to the back of your brain to process her.” Much in the same way one can hear a song and immediately feel affected by it, such is what people call “love at first sight,” he explains.
This all seemed pretty intense. What I had assumed was a complex idea – romantic love – is a simple chemical reaction. What’s more, the “high” of the NGF protien wears off after about a year. After that, it really is just a matter of being compatible with someone. It seemed to make the process of falling in love quite dull.
“Is there hope for romantics? Can something like ‘The Notebook’ actually happen?” I ask him, citing the 2004 Gosling/McAdams cheeseball epic in which (spoiler alert) one elderly partner is brought back from the brink of dementia by being read their old romantic writings.
“Yes,” he replies, “In Alzheimer’s patients, the first thing to go is short term memory. If the connection one has in their brain is old enough, though, it has a much harder time being forgotten.”
“So, nobody truly forgets their first love?” I ask him.
“Look at it this way,” he says, “Malcom Gladwell says that if you spend 10,000 hours practicing something, you can become an expert. You can learn something new in half an hour and master it in 10,000 hours. If you spend 10,000 hours loving someone – roughly a year – you can become a master at it and beat your brain’s predilection to NGF.”
“So you can beat your own brain chemistry?” I ask.
I thank him for his time. I hang up the phone and pack up my stuff, ready for a long walk back home from the coffee shop.
On my way out the door I hold it open to… interestingly… the girl from earlier. Brunette, almond eyes, hair like spilled root beer. She smiles. “Thanks,” she says.
Maybe she’s the one, I think.
Or maybe I’m just telling myself that.