Love or Lust?

Whether its Romeo and Juliet or Edward Cullen and Bella, authors have tried for many years to explain love. From the moment lust hits you to the point where you realise they are ‘the one’ – it can be a rollercoaster of emotions. But what is behind the knees weak, beating heart, obsessive feeling? We explore the science behind the mating game…

Lust – Your eyes lock across a crowded room, your heartbeats race and everyone else melts into the background. You’ve just been introduced to this new man but already, you are sure you want to know him better. With your pupils dilated and your heart hammering, you are like animals on the hunt. And you are helped in that mission by nature’s hormone of desire, testosterone. In actual fact, what you are feeling is merely the first stage of lust. According to researchers, it’s the chemicals oestrogen and testosterone that are at work here. Did you ever wonder why you’re attracted to someone who might be good looking but you know isn’t that smart or worse, is completely wrong for you? There’s old crafty lust at work again. It’s a powerful tool which ensures that even if the guy is an axe murderer but he smells good, we head towards reproducing our race with him. And for obeying our lust we get chemical rewards. The state after lustful sex is the same as the state induced by taking opiates. We’re supplied a heady mix of chemical changes from the brain, including increases in the levels of serotonin, oxytocin, vasopressin and endogenous opioids (the body’s natural equivalent of heroin). So if you’re ever wondering why you’re feeling drugged on lust, or even slightly addicted, this is the reason. Lust is also very different to the next stages of attraction and attachment. The three stages are so different that it can cause complications. That is the precarious situation of being married to one person, feeling heady romance for another and lusting after a third. Looks like Tiger Woods had an excuse after all.

2) Attraction

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? If you thought lust was fun – attraction is ten times better. This is known in laymen’s terms as ‘the state of being in love’. This is the stuff of Shakespeare – spawning many, love songs sonnets and plays. There are three chemicals at large in the attraction stage. These are adrenaline, dopamine and serotonin. Your blood levels of adrenaline and cortisol increase due to love activating your stress response. This means that when you bump into your new love unexpectedly, or receive a text from them, you start to sweat, your heart races and your mouth goes dry. Studies on newly ‘love struck’ couples also indicated that they had high levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine. This chemical stimulates ‘desire and reward’ by triggering an intense rush of pleasure. It also has the same effect on the brain as taking cocaine. (This is why you may find your new lover addictive.) At this stage people often show the signs of surging dopamine: increased energy, less need for sleep or food, focused attention and delight in smallest details of this relationship. And finally there is a dip in your serotonin levels. This is one of love’s most important chemicals that may explain why your new lover keeps popping into your thoughts. Researchers have found that the low level of serotonin found in the brain at this stage resembles the level found in people with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). As a result this whole stage is characterised by feelings of exhilaration and obsessive thoughts about the object of one’s affection. You are also more likely to believe that your connection to your new love interest is more special and different then anyone else’s romance. Ever.


3) Attachment

Nature is clever. It knows that you are going to be no use raising kids if you are stuck in the attraction stage writing sonnets under trees. You’d probably go off and forget about your kids if you did. That’s why, fortunately for children, parenting restrains dopamine lunacy. This stage is characterised by a feeling of stability and security with a long-term mate. It usually happens after about 2 to 3 years or after you have had a child.
The important chemicals in this stage are vasopressin and oxytoxin. Both of these hormones are released after sex. Their potential role in long-term relationships was discovered when scientists looked at the prairie vole. Prairie voles indulge in far more sex than is strictly necessary for the purposes of reproduction. They also, like humans, form fairly stable pair bonds. Researchers found that when male prairie voles were given a drug that suppressed the effect of vasopressin, the bond with their partner deteriorated as they lost their devotion. Similarly, when human couples become more entwined, hormones can affect them in other ways. For example, even holding a baby can cause a man’s testosterone levels to decrease. But if you’re in a long term relationship its not all doom and gloom – researcher’s have found that attraction can be rekindled by gazing into each other’s eyes during face-to-face conversation, and by taking a holiday or engaging in exciting and novel activities together.

Fact: Did you know people who enjoy regular sex enjoy better cardiovascular health and age better? Studies that show people who make love three times a week or more appear to others to be about a decade younger than they really are.