How Brain Chemistry Can Betray You

Linda Carroll on brain chemistry.
Linda Carroll on brain chemistry.

Brain Chemistry: A Marvel

When I was younger, I was taught that there were just two aspects of being human: the physical and the spiritual. In college, my understanding grew to include the emotional, the social, and the sexual. In recent years, an explosion of research on brain chemistry has given us entirely different dimensions to explore.

Our brain chemistry is a marvel. It informs our moods, our hearts, and our senses. Therefore, it influences many of our choices in ways different than those the rational brain might. But brain chemistry can also be responsible for wreaking havoc on our lives when we mistake the intensity of our feelings for ultimate truth.

1. When you fall in love without thinking it through.

As the story goes, Cupid, son of the love goddess Aphrodite, carried arrows dipped into a special love potion. He lifted his bow, aimed, and the prick of his arrows caused innocent targets to fall madly in love with anyone near them.

This theory extends beyond Greek mythology—there’s science to prove it. Instead of a magical potion, we know the brain’s chemical cocktail involves dopamine (which causes cravings), endorphins (the feel-good chemical), and oxytocin (the cuddle chemical). This romantic mix induces cravings for the love object in their absence, a rush of delight in their presence, and a need to touch and hold them at every opportunity. According to MRI scans, falling in love lights up the pleasure centers in our brains, keeping us going back for more. Our senses are heightened when we fall in love with someone, to the point where just catching a whiff of their personal scent can send our senses into overdrive.

In one study, Claus Wedekind, a biologist at the University of Lausanne, instructed 44 men to wear the same new t-shirt for two nights and to refrain from using deodorant. Then, 44 women sniffed the sweaty t-shirts and chose the one with the scent they found most attractive. According to the study’s results, the women chose men whose immune systems were most different from their own.

In other words, when it comes to brain chemistry, it’s true what they say: Opposites attract. Even more troubling (or exciting, depending on how you look at it), it only takes us 200 milliseconds to figure out if we’re attracted to someoneBefore making life-altering decisions, make sure to ask yourself important questions: How do they talk about their past lovers? Is it overly negative? Do they pay their bills? Do they express anger and affection appropriately? Are they skilled enough (or willing to learn) how to love healthily? Remember, biological attraction doesn’t mean you’re destined to be together.

2. When you fall in love with "forbidden" people.

Falling in love with “forbidden” people, such as a supervisor, a student, or our best friend’s wife, is fairly common; sometimes Cupid’s potion pushes us toward a person we absolutely cannot have. Their face is embedded in our minds, longing for them takes over our bodies, and our brains fixate on them almost obsessively.

When this happens, our frontal cortex, which is where we form our good judgment, deactivates thanks to a plethora of love drugs. Dr. Helen Fisher calls this frustration-attraction ." She discovered that when something stands in the way of us and our loved one—like a romance we know is wrong—feelings of love amplify. Logic is not helpful here. Instead, we need good information and a will strong enough to walk away.

So, what should you do? I hate to break it to you, but the best thing is to stay away. Though any two people can have a relationship that works, starting with a mess can encourage fallout that takes years to overcome. Most people cannot do it. Treat this kind of love as you would an addiction. Your powers of discretion and judgment haven’t gone away, but you must navigate the chemical downpour to find them. To remember why this person isn’t right for you, reach out to someone you trust, call your therapist, and remind yourself that you’re under the influence of a tricky elixir. Our feelings are not always tied to the bigger truths of our lives.

I encounter “relationship bed death” at least once a week. I hear things like, “I love my partner, but I’m not attracted to him,” or, “She’s a great woman, but the spark is gone.” Believe it or not, an estimated 20 million Americans are living in sexless marriages or committed relationships. Studies attribute this to a variety of causes: tiredness, weight gain, stress, work, children, pornography, power struggles, erectile dysfunction, vaginal dryness, and lack of communication, among others.

One thing many people miss, however, is that we’re wired to find the erotic in variety and in the unknown. Many positive aspects of a relationship (trust, familiarity, a predictable life together) may stall the chemicals that say “yes” to sex.

If you’re struggling with this, the answer lies in accurately defining the problem and determining whether you want to fix it. Many things that seem fatal to love are fixable. We can bring new life to our relationships not by relying on desire but by playing with the chemicals of arousal. Bringing some creative possibilities to your old, familiar sex life may do wonders when it comes to reviving excitement.

4. When you can't stop holding grudges.

Equally as powerful as the chemicals of love are the chemicals of anger and attachment to our own point of view, which involves the fight or flight chemicals misfiring. David Brin, Ph.D. found that, thanks to our brain chemistry, we can become addicted to our own self-righteousness—meaning the feelings we have when we’re angry can become a state we crave. In fact, Dr. Brin suggests that righteous indignation might be just as addictive as many illegal substances. Yikes.

If you struggle with this, try mindful conflict resolution to help you break the cycle. Stonewalling (or giving your partner the silent treatment), for example, has been shown to lead to back pain, while anger leads to heart problems. Anger is not a sustainable state, and it certainly isn’t good for your relationship. Remind yourself that your partner is not the enemy. It is also important to learn about confirmation bias, wherein we select, interpret, and recall only the information that confirms our rightness. Good relationship skills require us to understand the points of view of all the people we connect with.

5. When you can't move on from a past relationship.

Imagine falling in love with an old girlfriend (or boyfriend) you haven’t seen in 20 years. You’re having dreams about her, googling her, and finding yourself plotting to find her and rekindle the relationship. You may mourn endlessly over someone who dumped you. This, too, is a kind of addiction. We become addicted to the highs and lows of dangerous romantic relationships. Breaking up with a toxic person can be like the withdrawal and rehab that comes with a destructive drug addiction. Like all unhealthy cravings, this addiction must be managed intentionally and carefully. Don’t call, don’t text, and don’t stalk on social media.

Kindly and gently distract yourself from fantasies and practice thought stopping. It is easy to believe that the strength of your yearning is equal to the strength of your love, but here’s the truth: It’s just a measurement of your addiction to the other person.

It is important to remember that chemical changes (which may occur without our knowledge) are an essential part of our perception. Although these molecules (called neurotransmitters) operate with remarkable cohesion, sometimes they create havoc in our personal and intimate lives. With knowledge, awareness and practice, we can allow the wise and developed part of our brain to oversee our life choices.

This post originally appeared in MindBodyGreen.