If you’ve been caught up in the early passion of a love affair you may remember feelings of intense yearning, of not being able to eat or sleep, or of being able to think of little else but your loved one. What we know now is how close that state of infatuation really is to drug addiction or some mental illness.
Dr Helen Fisher of Rutgers University looked at the physical effect of love on the brain by asking volunteers to look at pictures of their loved ones whilst in an MRI scanner. What she found was that the lover’s picture triggered the release of dopamine by the parts of the brain associated with pleasure and addiction. This is why infatuation shares some of the same elements of a drug high – loss of sleep and the inability to maintain attention on anything else – and according to Dr Fisher “can overtake the rational parts of your brain”.
The same pattern was repeated when the studies were carried out with volunteers who were still in love with an ex-partner following the end of a relationship. Here though as well as the increase in dopamine they also saw a lower control of risk taking and obsessive-compulsive behaviours, as well as activity in the area of the brain associated with physical pain. In fact other studies have shown that serotonin levels fall by almost 50% during periods of infatuation, and reach a similar level to those people with obsessive-compulsive disorders.
These studies don’t just reveal why infatuation results in so many people becoming love-struck or love-sick – they also point to ways of rekindling that spark in long-term relationships. One of the most straightforward and powerful ways of doing this is to try new activities together.
In one study couples were split into two groups. The first set of couples took up an activity together that they both found new and exciting, such as dance lessons or learning to sail. The other group of couples also undertook activities, but these were ones already familiar to both of them, such as a trip to the cinema or a meal with friends. At the end of ten weeks the couples that had tried new activities reported a much greater improvement in their relationship than those who had stuck with the familiar. The reason for this appears to be that the new and exciting activities naturally increased dopamine levels, which were then associated with the partner, leading to feelings like those from early infatuation.
You don’t have to both take up abseiling or tap dancing to deepen your relationship though – you could simply take an hour together to answer the 36 questions that are almost guaranteed to strengthen the bond between you.
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