The Science behind Lust, Attraction, and Attachment

Questions that pertain to human attraction and attachment have perplexed the science for decades. Experts from various fields have tried to concoct a formula; that is, a scientific basis that would describe this fundamental human emotion, both in its platonic and romantic expression. 

What has been proved, however, is that love can be explained, to a certain extent, by chemistry. If this is true, is there, then, a formula for human relationships that could shed some light on these phenomena?

Lust, Actually

Lust can be defined as a strong urge for sexual gratification. In the context of evolution, it derives from our desire to reproduce, which is common to all living organisms. To each organism, reproduction is a way to perpetuate their specie by passing on their genes.

When it comes to the human brain, the hypothalamus has a significant role in this process. It stimulates the production of two types of hormones that govern sexual function: estrogen and testosterone. Although they have stereotypically been labeled as female and male, both chemicals are found in women and men. 

For example, testosterone is responsible for libido in practically everyone, while estrogen, on the other hand, has less prominent effects. However, some studies show that women feel more sexually motivated during ovulation when levels of estrogen are highest. 

Fatal Attraction

When it comes to attraction, it’s a sensation that’s different, yet similar to lust. Although you can lust for someone you find attractive, one could also happen sans the other. Nevertheless, the area in our brain that regulates the attraction is the one responsible for the reward system. 

When you enter a new relationship, the reward center of the brain goes haywire, making you constantly feel exhilarated and elated. A chemical that’s responsible for such reinforcing sensations is called dopamine. It is released by the hypothalamus as a signal that you’re experiencing pleasure, which in this case includes sex or spending time with someone you like. 

Therefore, a significant amount of dopamine and noradrenaline, a related hormone, is produced when you’re attracted to someone. These hormones make you feel euphoric, giddy, and energetic, even causing insomnia or loss of appetite, which is why people sometimes feel so in love that they can’t sleep or eat. 

What’s more, noradrenaline is also responsible for the fight-or-flight response that revs up in times of stress or danger, keeping us alert. And while attraction leads to an increase in dopamine and noradrenaline, it causes a decrease in serotonin, which is a hormone that mediates our mood and appetite. 

What’s interesting is that low serotonin levels are also symptomatic of obsessive-compulsive disorder, leading scientists to believe that the overwhelming feelings at the start of the relationship are caused by the same thing.

No Strings Attached?

Lastly, attachment is the governing element of long-term relationships, both platonic and romantic. It mediates social courtesy, paternal and maternal bonds, friendships, and a large number of other intimacies. The two principal hormones that pertain to attachment are vasopressin and oxytocin, the latter of which is also popularly known as the cuddle hormone. 

Both of these chemicals are generated by the hypothalamus and discharged as precursors to bonding. In other words, oxytocin is responsible for that warm and fuzzy feeling you get when you see your friends. 

Moreover, it is suggested that oxytocin strengthens positive feelings that you already have for the people you love. It is the white noise of your relationships with your significant other, family, and friends, which constantly reminds you why you love those people, and consequently, enhances your affection for them.

When presented like this, love seems like a simple chemical formula; that is, a product of a few hormones. The reality, however, deems otherwise as love is often much more profound and complex. And while it’s useful to know its biological explanation, love entails an array of both positive; and other, not-so-positive emotions and cannot be reduced to a simple chemical reaction. 

[1] “Love, Actually: The Science behind Lust, Attraction, and Companionship.” [Online] Available at: http://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2017/love-actually-science-behind-lust-attraction-companionship/ [Accessed on: 10 May 2020] 

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