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What happens in the brain when your attracted to someone?

Being attracted to someone is a complex process that involves multiple regions of the brain. When we see someone we find attractive, both primal and sophisticated neurochemical processes are engaged. Understanding what happens in our brains when we feel attraction can help explain the overwhelming feelings and behaviors associated with romance.

The Initial Attraction

When we first notice someone attractive, sensory areas of the brain are activated. The visual cortex allows us to see them and perceive their physical form and appearance. Other areas like the parietal cortex process tactile sensations if we touch them. The olfactory bulb also lets us smell any perfumes or scents on the person. These sensory signals converge in the primary somatosensory cortex, letting us experience the attraction on a physical level.

Seeing an attractive face also triggers our fusiform gyrus, located in the temporal lobe. This area specializes in facial recognition and identification. When your fusiform gyrus is activated by an appealing face, it sends signals to areas of the brain that control rewards and judgement. This can make your heart beat faster and trigger the release of pleasure hormones.

Desire and craving

Two parts of the brain drive our basic urges to pursue and acquire mates. First, the hypothalamus regulates drives like hunger, thirst and sex. When attracted to someone, the hypothalamus increases production of sex hormones like estrogen and testosterone. Second, the ventral tegmental area (VTA) produces dopamine, the “desire chemical” that motivates us to seek rewards.

With heightened sex hormone levels and surging dopamine, the brain initiates wanting behaviors. You focus your attention on the attractive person, finding reasons to interact with them again. The VTA provides pleasurable rewards each time you do something to get closer to the potential mate. This amplifies your craving for the person.

Addiction-like responses

Love and attraction activate reward systems in the brain like cocaine and other addictive drugs. Dopamine floods neural pathways controlling pleasure, motivation, and focus. With repeated exposure to the person you’re attracted to, your brain can establish reward pathways and cravings that resemble addiction.

In fact, MRI scans show that people in love have lower activity in the amygdala and nuclei accumbens – the same areas that are deactivated by substance abuse. This means the brain can respond to love similarly to a habit-forming narcotic.

Emotional bonding

Physical attraction is often the first step toward emotional bonding with a mate. Once attracted, you engage more socially with the person. Your emotions, memories, and psychological needs then enter the neurochemical mix.

Oxytocin and vasopressin

The hormones oxytocin and vasopressin promote attachment, bonding, and trust. Oxytocin suppresses fear and anxiety when produced during times of closeness like hugging or intercourse. It helps you feel more safe and secure with a partner. Vasopressin meanwhile strengthens social connections and reduces avoidance.


Dopamine doesn’t just drive initial attraction – it also activates with feelings like romantic love. When you’re falling for someone, dopamine levels remain elevated. This rewards behaviors that strengthen the relationship.


The neurotransmitter serotonin regulates mood, well-being, and happiness. When you’re attracted to someone and spending time together, serotonin levels rise. This explains the euphoric, energized feelings during a new romance.

Long-term attachment

While the first phases of attraction are driven by the primal limbic system, long-term attachment uses more complex processes. As intimacy grows, brain networks that manage social cognition and decision-making take over. These areas evaluate compatibility, the future of the relationship, and the merits of committing.

Frontal cortex

The prefrontal cortex handles higher functions like planning, personality, and controlling emotions. When you first meet someone, the frontal cortex focuses on physical appearance and sexual interest. Later, it considers compatibility, closeness, and the potential longevity of a relationship.

Neurotransmitter regulation

After the initial dopamine high, the brain regulates key neurotransmitters. Serotonin, oxytocin, vasopressin, and other chemicals stabilize at new equilibrium points. This reduces mood swings and moderates your emotional investment.

The regulation process determines how strong attachment becomes. Lower serotonin with greater norepinephrine typically signals deeper bonding and dependence on a partner.

Breaking bonds and heartache

We tend to think of attraction and love emanating from the heart. But it’s the brain that drives emotional and behavioral processes during romantic attachment. It follows that it’s also the brain that controls the pain of heartache after a breakup.

Neurochemistry disruption

Losing a partner disrupts the neurochemistry balance the brain established during attraction and bonding. This plunges serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin, vasopressin, and other chemicals to abnormal lows. The brain’s “reward center” stops getting signals associated with pleasure and attachment.

Withdrawing an addictive drug

The brain basically goes through chemical withdrawal when a mate leaves. Research shows it takes over a year for the brain’s neurochemistry to stabilize again. People liken breakups to giving up an addictive drug because neural reward pathways are deprived of key neurotransmitters.

Activating the pain center

Heartache doesn’t just feel metaphorically like pain – it activates parts of the brain that physically process pain signals. The anterior cingulate cortex and insular cortex, which manage painful stimuli, are especially active when looking at photos of ex-partners. Breakups hurt emotionally because the brain interprets damage to social attachment as a physical threat.


Attraction engages visual, chemical, emotional, and goal-oriented regions of the brain. While the primal areas drive initial interest, the prefrontal cortex makes judgements about long-term relationships. Healthy attachment balances neurochemical levels while heartache disrupts these systems. Understanding the neural basis of attraction helps explain why love can be so fulfilling yet so painful.