©Arlene R. Taylor PhD
I flicked open my cell phone to the sound of a now familiar voice. It was Suzette, her third call in as many months, with more questions about “love and the teenage brain.”
During our initial conversation Suzette had told me about her first serious relationship. “We’re absolutely on the same wave-length,” she had enthused. “It is such a high!” Her satisfied sighs were audible.
“You’re right,” I had agreed. “Falling in love can produce an amazing high. Mental, physical, and emotional reactions, the result of chemical changes in the brain, create a virtual chemical tsunami!”
“Wow!” was her response.
“A sense of being in love is believed to function on its own frequency, if you will,” I told Suzette. “Typically it can only be perceived by another brain with a corresponding frequency, which helps to account for your perception of being on the same wave length.” This also means that there may be times in life when one individual is inexplicably drawn, at least momentarily, to another person, perhaps based on some similarity of brain waves. Whether or not it would be advisable to take action on that momentary attraction is something entirely different. That is where a mature brain, the activation of executive functions such as conscience, willpower, and morality, plus obtaining feedback from other brains that are not experiencing the same brain-wave attraction can be invaluable.
When Suzette called the second time, her questions had revolved around emotions and whether they could co-exist with love. “Sometimes I’m so angry at my love about something or other,” she said. “Am I still in love when I’m angry?”
I wanted to tell her that at age 17 I’m not sure your brain is developed enough to know! Instead I responded, “Since there’s no way to know what goes on inside your head except what you are willing to share, I don’t have an answer to that question. I can tell you, however, that studies have shown that the emotion of anger and a sense of love operate through independent systems in the brain, although they are closely related.” That means that a person can be angry and still feel “in love,” or be very much in love and become angry at specific behaviors or in specific situations.
In addition, the brain matures much more slowly than the physical body. Myelination, the process of coating nerve pathways with an insulating sheath, can be compared to electrical contractors using insulated electric wires. The insulation helps to promote safety and prevent the wires from shorting out. Myelination of the corpus callosum—the largest band of nerve fibers in the brain and the bridge that connects the left and right hemispheres—typically is completed about age 20-21, although the process may take 1.6 years longer in the male brain. Until myelination is completed, the brain is at risk for episodes of “shorting out” (a metaphorical term for immature or undesirable behaviors).
Development of the pre-frontal lobes that provide executive functions (e.g., decision making, reflective analysis, goal setting/achievement, ethics, management of emotions) is completed somewhere between the ages of 25 and 27. “Decisions you make prior to the development of the pre-frontal lobes might not work well for you in the long term,” I said. “For example, the person you think you want to wake up next to for the rest of your life may be very different at age 28 compared to what you thought you wanted at age 19.” There was no sound from her end, and I wondered if Suzette had hung up. She hadn’t, but that information had given her pause!
We chatted for a few moments and then Suzette asked, “Does the euphoria I feel mean I’m really in love? And if so long can I expect it to last?” I wanted to ask whether she meant the relationship or the feelings, but I restrained myself.
“That depends on how you are defining love,” I responded. Unfortunately our culture applies the term “love” to a variety of conditions, including eros, mania, ludus, agape, and pregma, to name a few. According to Helen Fisher, author ofWhy We Love, and The First Sex, these labels refer to different blends of the three basic mating circuits: lust, romantic love, and attachment. No wonder human beings become confused about love! In general, women have been conditioned to engage in sexual activity when they are actually looking for attachment, while men have learned to speak of love when they are actually looking for sexual activity.
Suzette could be experiencing lust, infatuation (often called romantic love), or the beginning of something long-lasting and possibly profound. If it’s the latter, the chemical tsunami will gradually diminish, to be replaced by a conscious choice to hone the attachment—perhaps for a lifetime. (Lust can be very short lived and may not be followed by either the obsession of romantic love or attachment.) Individuals who do not understand this tend to wander from relationship to relationship. As soon as the euphoric high begins to diminish they assume they are no longer in love and move on to a new relationship that they hope will trigger the desired cascade of brain chemicals.
“A sense of euphoria is thought to result from the impact of brain chemicals, especially dopamine and phenylethylamine, on the reward pathways leading from the limbic system to the cerebral cortex,” I explained. You always give up something to get something, however. Temporary increases in dopamine, norepinephine, and phenylethylamine cause serotonin levels to fall. If the love affair fails, these changes in neurochemistry can set the brain up for depression.
Oxytocin, typically released during sexual arousal, can trigger feelings of intimacy but also can temporarily disrupt memory. This can result in a sensation of being detached from reality. Under the influence of oxytocin, lovers can become obsessive, suffer delusions, and assume an overly optimistic view of what the future holds—regardless of the facts.
The brain was not designed to sustain a state of euphoria indefinitely. When related to infatuation / romantic love, euphoria typically lasts somewhere between 12-18 months. Couples who choose attachment as their preferred level of bonding can create ways to add variety and excitement to their relationship. In such cases, they can often retain some sense of euphoria for longer periods of time (e.g., 2-3 years), or experience it episodically during the entire relationship. There are always exceptions. Barriers to a specific relationship can make it seem even more desirable. In such cases the adversity may extend the couple’s ardor for months or even years.
Of course this is just the tip of the iceberg. Indeed a plethora of individual and environmental factors impact one’s personal experience. For example, people who grow up believing that they are loved because of what they do (not because of who they are) tend to believe that their survival depends on doing the right thing—at all times—and that if they make one wrong move they become personally responsible for all negative outcomes. Sometimes they believe they could even die, a perception that can set them up for a lifetime of obsession with perfectionism. It’s no surprise that this would impact the way they approach relationships. It is impossible to love and care about others in a healthy and functional manner if you do not first practice love and care for yourself.
Studies of brain function indicate that love (by whatever definition) begins in the brain. It involves a variety of brain chemicals, the alteration of which can produce a myriad of feelings and sensations that can be rewarding and frightening, awe-inspiring and overwhelming—and wonderful! Fortunately, the brain is also the seat of decision-making, where you identify the type of love you are experiencing and decide on the actions you choose to take.
This cascade of chemicals is no respecter of persons. It doesn’t matter whether you are young, old, or middle-aged; male, female, or androgynous; gay, straight, or in between; Darwinian, creationist, or a mix of both. If you have a functioning brain, you are at potential risk. And it’s not relegated to human beings only. The old birds-and-bees analogy may have been relatively close to the mark. Researchers believe that many animals and birds experience some form of romantic passion, which can last from seconds to weeks or longer.
It was time for Suzette’s next class. She planned to use this topic for one of her English literature assignments. “Maybe the old axiom, it’s all in your head, is right after all,” she mused. That would be a yes! It is all in your head, at least in relation to the love tsunami!