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What happens to the Brain, when you are in Love

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Published on Feb 16, 2010

Why do we crave love so much, even to the point that we would die for it? To learn more about our very real, very physical need for romantic love, Helen Fisher and her research team took MRIs of people in love -- and people who had just been dumped.
When two people are attracted to each other, a virtual explosion of adrenaline-like nuerochemicals gush forth. Fireworks explode and we see stars. PEA or phenylethylamine is a chemical that speeds up the flow of information between nerve cells. Also, involved in chemistry are dopamine and norepinephrine, chemical cousins of amphetamines. Dopamine makes us feel good and norepinephrine stimulates the production of adrenaline. It makes our heart race! These three chemicals combine to give us infatuation or chemistry. It is why new lovers feel euphoric and energized, and float on air. It is also why new lovers can make love for hours and talk all night for weeks on end. This is the chemistry or the love sparks we all seek.

Singles search for love armed with a list of qualities desired in a mate/lover, such as honesty, fidelity, loyalty, sense of humor, intelligence, warmth, etc. Yet when that person appears they say, they are really nice, but nothing clicked, just no chemistry. We always seek the chemistry high.

Unfortunately, we hear that click when we recognize our original parent/child situation. That's when our brain really gets those phenylethylamines and other chemicals moving.

Some people become veritable 'love junkies.' They need chemistry or this chemical excitement to feel happy about and intoxicated by life. Once this initial rush of chemicals wanes their relationship crumbles. They're soon off again, detectives seeking a quick fix to their forlorn feelings: another chemical high from infatuation. These love junkies also have one other problem. The body builds up a tolerance to these chemicals. Then it takes more and more chemistry to bring that special feeling of love. They crave the intoxication of chemistry and infatuation.

Many adults go through life in a series of six-month to three-year relationships that keep them high. If these love junkies stay married, they are likely to seek affairs to fuel their chemical highs.

Studies conducted at the Institute for HeartMath in Boulder Creek, California, confirm the health-improving and life-affirming effects of love on the human body. By studying the heart's rhythms, researchers there have discovered that when we feel love, or any positive emotion such as compassion, caring, or gratitude, the heart sends messages to the brain and secretes hormones that positively affect our health.

"Our heart rate changes with every heartbeat," Rollin McCraty, director of research at the Institute of HeartMath, explains. "It creates patterns we call heart rhythms." Researchers see the difference in heart rhythms easily when study participants wear portable recorders that allow researchers to monitor their heart rhythms as they go about their day. These rhythms provide "a window" into the inner workings of the communication system between the heart and the brain.

McCraty believes the heart actually monitors the blood stream for hormones and translates the hormonal information into neurological information, which cascades up into the higher brain centers, like the cortex.

"When we get stressed out or mad or worried, the bottom line is that the heart's rhythmic beating pattern becomes very incoherent, and that has the effect of inhibiting the brain's cortex," McCraty explains. "When we feel emotions like love and appreciation the heart switches into a very rhythmic, coherent, beating pattern that facilitates cortical function." These coherent heart rhythms, he says, cause an "inner synchronization" of the systems in our body, which then affects how we think, function, and fight off disease.

Not only does the heart communicate with the brain via the nervous system, its rhythms affect the functioning of the nervous system itself. The autonomic nervous system is divided into two branches, one that speeds things up and another that slows things down. "When we are in a non-loving state, when we are angry at someone, the two halves of the nervous system get out of sync with one another. It's like they're fighting each other: one tries to speed the heart up as the other tries to slow it down. This is what creates this very erratic heart rhythm.

"When we are in a loving state, our hearts go into coherent heart rhythms," says McCraty. "This is because the two halves of the nervous system are in sync and operating much more efficiently together. That allows the body to go through its natural regenerative process," he explains.

"If we feel love and compassion, that boosts our immune system."

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