The science of sex, love, attraction, and obsession | Big Think | Summary and Q&A

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June 13, 2021
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The science of sex, love, attraction, and obsession | Big Think

TL;DR

Romantic love is fueled by neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin, leading to addiction-like behaviors, but sustaining a happy, long-term partnership requires empathy, communication, and engaging in novel activities.

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Questions & Answers

Q: What neurotransmitters are released during romantic or passionate love?

During romantic or passionate love, the neurotransmitter dopamine is released, leading to addiction-like behaviors and intense desire for one's partner. Serotonin is also involved, leading to obsessive thoughts and longing for the partner.

Q: How do neurotransmitters affect future feeling states and behaviors?

Different neurotransmitters, such as dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin, affect future feeling states and behaviors. Dopamine enhances reward and reinforces behaviors, creating a sense of addiction to one's partner. Serotonin contributes to obsessive thoughts and rumination. Oxytocin promotes feelings of warmth, bonding, and intimacy, particularly following orgasm.

Q: Does being intensely in love make someone develop obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)?

Intensely being in love can lead to obsessive thoughts and behaviors similar to those seen in individuals with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). However, it does not mean that one will develop OCD. The increase in serotonin associated with intense romantic love can contribute to obsessive thoughts about one's partner.

Q: How can sustaining a long-term partnership be achieved?

Sustaining a long-term partnership requires maintaining the three brain systems for mating and reproduction (sex drive, romantic love, and attachment). This can be achieved by having regular sex with the partner, engaging in novel activities together, staying in touch through physical touch and communication, and expressing empathy and positive emotions. Overlooking flaws and focusing on positive qualities also contributes to a happy long-term partnership.

Q: What role do similarities in values and beliefs play in maintaining a relationship?

Studies suggest that having similar values and beliefs can lead to a longer-term ability to maintain a relationship. Fewer bridges need to be crossed when partners have fewer fundamental disagreements, making compromise and communication easier. Although opposites can attract, having similarities reduces the need for extensive compromise down the road.

Q: How does the brain adapt to sustain feelings of romantic love?

Novelty plays a crucial role in sustaining feelings of romantic love. Engaging in new activities together releases dopamine in the brain, contributing to the maintenance of romantic love. Additionally, staying in touch through physical touch and affection fosters deep attachment, driven by the release of the neurotransmitter oxytocin. These activities help sustain feelings of romantic love in long-term partnerships.

Q: Can expressing positive emotions impact overall health in a long-term relationship?

Expressing positive emotions, such as saying nice things to your partner every day, has health benefits for both individuals in the relationship. It reduces cholesterol and the stress hormone cortisol while boosting the immune system. Overlooking flaws and focusing on positive aspects of the relationship helps maintain a long-term deep attachment and promotes overall well-being.

Q: What changes in brain activity are observed in long-term happy partners?

Brain scanning studies of people married for an average of 21 years and still madly in love with their partners showed activity in brain regions linked with empathy, emotional self-control, and positive illusions. These individuals were able to overlook flaws, focus on positive aspects, and maintain deep attachment through empathy and emotional regulation.

Summary & Key Takeaways

  • Romantic love is characterized by intense desire for another person and the expectation that it will persist in the future.

  • Neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin play a key role in romantic love, leading to addiction-like behaviors and obsessive thoughts about one's partner.

  • Sustaining a happy, long-term partnership requires maintaining the three basic brain systems for mating and reproduction (sex drive, romantic love, and attachment) and engaging in novel activities, staying in touch, and expressing empathy and positive emotions.

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