When we feel attraction or infatuation with someone, our brains release certain chemicals that make us feel good and reinforce our desire for that person. The main chemical at play is dopamine, often called the “feel good” chemical. Dopamine is released in areas of the brain that regulate emotion, motivation, and pleasure. Along with dopamine, other chemicals like adrenaline, serotonin, and oxytocin also contribute to the mix of attraction. Understanding the science behind this chemical cocktail can help explain some of the irrational or extreme behaviors people exhibit when infatuated or newly in love.
Dopamine is the primary chemical released when we feel attraction or infatuation with someone. It is a neurotransmitter produced in the brain that plays a major role in motivation, pleasure, and reward-seeking behavior. When released, dopamine reinforces behavior and causes us to repeat actions that brought us pleasure and satisfaction.
Some key points about dopamine:
- Released by the hypothalamus and projected into areas of the brain tied to emotion, motivation, and pleasure like the nucleus accumbens.
- Causes feelings of euphoria, craving, and addictive behaviors.
- Released during pleasurable activities like eating, having sex, doing drugs, or falling in love.
- Causes focused attention on the object of desire, tunnel vision, and motivation to pursue and acquire the reward.
- Levels increase during attraction and stay elevated in early romantic relationships.
When we first meet someone attractive, dopamine is released, causing us to feel pleasure, excitement, and motivation to get closer to that person. We experience a rush or high, similar to other dopamine-inducing behaviors like gambling or thrill-seeking, driving our fixation on the love interest.
As the attraction develops in the early days and weeks of a new relationship, dopamine levels remain elevated. This flood of feel-good dopamine reinforces our desire for the person and motivates us to pursue the reward of being with them.
Dopamine is closely tied to addiction pathways in the brain. The euphoria of new love mimics the high caused by drug use. Just like an addict craves their drug of choice, we obsessively think about and desire the object of our affection during this intoxicating stage of attraction.
Effects of High Dopamine
High levels of dopamine early in a relationship can cause the following effects:
- Narrowed focus – Tunnels vision leading to constant thoughts about the person. Harder to concentrate on other things.
- Motivation – Provides drive and persistence to get and keep the person’s attention and affection at any cost.
- Goal-oriented – Primary goal becomes getting together and staying with the desired partner.
- Euphoria – Creates temporary but intense feelings of euphoria, ecstasy, and emotional highs.
- Risk-taking – Can lead to making poor or risky choices to attain the reward of the relationship.
- Addictive – Creates intense cravings for the person that are akin to addiction.
- Separation anxiety – Any absence causes anxiety, depression, pain.
- Impulsiveness – Diminished self-control and ability to resist temptation or recklessness.
These dopamine-driven behaviors and thought patterns can lead to poor decision-making in early courtship. The longing and euphoria are so strong, we ignore red flags and warning signs. We neglect responsibilities, overspend, take risks, and overlook flaws in pursuit of the fixation.
In addition to dopamine, adrenaline and norepinephrine also flood the system when we feel intense attraction. These chemicals cause increased heart rate, sweaty palms, and jitteriness associated with the nervous excitement of talking to someone we’re interested in.
Adrenaline, also called epinephrine, gets the body physically revved up and ready for action. It:
- Increases heart rate and blood pressure
- Triggers sweat production
- Dilates pupils
- Sharpens senses and focus
Along with adrenaline, norepinephrine is also released, further stimulating the nervous system. The rush we feel seeing the person is attributed to these biological preparations for action.
The adrenaline high of intense attraction forms addictive associations. We learn to associate the person with the hormonal thrill and pleasure of adrenaline. This reinforces our enthusiasm and draws us to keep pursuing the person to get our next “fix” of the addictive rush.
Serotonin regulates mood, social behavior, sleep, memory and more. It is a neurotransmitter tied to feelings of happiness and well-being. In early attraction, serotonin levels rise:
- Elevates mood – Feeling happiness and euphoria in the person’s presence.
- Lowers stress – Feeling more relaxed, calm, and peaceful around them.
- Less depressed – Diminished negative thought patterns.
- Sounder sleep – Feeling comforted by thoughts of the person at bedtime.
The boost in serotonin contributes to the overall feeling of ecstasy and reduces negative emotions when interacting with the love interest. It reinforces their presence as safe, comforting, and secure.
Some antidepressant drugs work by keeping serotonin active longer in the brain. Likewise, attraction has an antidepressant effect driven by increased serotonin activity.
Oxytocin is sometimes called the bonding or cuddle hormone. It is stimulated by intimacy, affection, and closeness with another person. Oxytocin is released:
- During sex, orgasm, and physical intimacy
- By prolonged eye contact
- Through touch like hugging, hand-holding
- From affectionate interaction
When two people are attracted and engaging in intimate behaviors, oxytocin levels increase. This reinforces feelings of bonding, satisfaction, and protectiveness. In new couples, oxytocin helps strengthen social attachment and desire for exclusivity. It makes us feel closely bonded to and trusting of the new partner.
Changes Over Time
In the early weeks and months of attraction and falling in love, dopamine, adrenaline, oxytocin, and serotonin flood the neural pathways. We feel high, addicted, bonded, trusting.
Over time, these chemical levels change. The madly-in-love intoxication driven by the early flood of chemicals inevitably fades.
Dopamine settles first, allowing the obsessiveness and loss of perspective to diminish. Feelings mellow into a calmer companionship driven more by oxytocin and serotonin.
Changes in brain chemicals contribute to relationships maturing out of the passionate honeymoon phase into more stable long-term attachments. But understanding the chemical cocktail leaves memories of being lovestruck forever intriguing.
Attraction arises from a potent mix of hormones and neurotransmitters including dopamine, adrenaline, serotonin, and oxytocin. These chemicals generate euphoria, motivation, exhilaration, ecstasy, and bonding when we feel draw to someone. Understanding the science behind this intoxicating neural cocktail helps explain why new love can make people act so oddly. It feels like an addiction because it biologically mimics the chemical effects of addictive drugs or behaviors. Over time, these chemical levels change as love transitions into deeper attachments. But knowing the combination of substances responsible for irrational love behaviors makes them no less remarkable.