How it works: love and heartbreak

By Emma Leach

Image credit: Jamie Street | Unsplash

Romantics look away now, herein lies the truth of love. Love is not a mythical ideal written in the cosmos, it’s a series of biochemical reactions controlling out hearts and minds. Of course, it’s not quite that simple, science doesn’t have all the answers. It might not yet be time to throw away the sonnets and the flowers, but there is definitely a strong chemical basis underlying what we know as romantic love, and it explains a lot about our behaviour.

There is a reason why love can sometimes feel like you are going insane, or having obsessive thoughts, it largely includes the same hormones.

First comes the plummeting or serotonin and the flood of dopamine in the first flushes of attraction. Reduced serotonin is seen in those with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), so it comes as no surprise that the first flushes of attraction can often be tied up in obsession with that person. Dopamine hits the reward centre of the brain, the same hit addicts receive when they indulge in their addiction. This large hit of dopamine makes us want to spend as much time as possible with our significant other, to try and get that hit of dopamine.

Lust is driven by oestrogen and testosterone, which is present in both males and females. Testosterone in particular increases libido, encouraging the pursuit of sexual gratification that underlies our evolutionary programmed desire to breed.

Oxytocin and vasopressin kick in later, as these are the hormones that seem to control long-term attachment. Oxytocin is sometimes known as the “love hormone” or “cuddle hormone”, it is released during sex, breastfeeding and childbirth, all activities related to bonding in both a romantic sense and a familial sense. It reinforces the positive feelings we have for those close to us, it defines reinforces our family ties, and supports monogamous behaviour.

Image credit: Maksym Kaharlytskyi

“The heart was made to be broken” ~ Oscar Wilde

Contrary to the proclamations of Oscar Wilde, the heart is one tough muscle. It continuously pumps blood around the trillions of cells in our body, more than 2.5 billion times in the average human lifespan.

Can heartbreak really be meant literally though? Contrary to how loss and heartbreak may feel at the time, sheer grief cannot rip the heart asunder as seen in illustrations, but there is a heart condition that has been linked to emotional heartbreak.

Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, colloquially known as broken heart syndrome, is a condition whereby the heart muscle becomes weakened. The weakening of the muscle tissue leads to one of the lower left chamber changing shape, ballooning at the bottom with a narrow ‘neck’ in a similar shape to the octopus pot the condition is named after – takotsubo means ‘octopus pot’ in Japanese. Symptoms include severe chest pains and heart palpitations, though it is very rare for patients to die as a result. The condition is known to be brought on by extreme stress events, such as heartbreak.

As love is so enmeshed in chemicals, could we heal heartbreak, or even develop anti-love drugs to prevent forming the attachment in the first place? In theory, blocking oxytocin could break romantic attachments, blocking a hormone called CRF may relieve grief, and there is even research being carried out on dampening or removing memories, with various applications.

With these options come a host of ethical dilemmas. Should we ‘cure’ heartbreak? Could these anti-love drugs be mis-used in some way? Should you modulate normal emotions with pharmaceuticals? For even the most pragmatic people, love can prove to be a beguiling and exhilarating mystery, and with that comes the risk of heartbreak, perhaps it is best left that way.

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