What the heck is...

What the heck is… love?

By Oliver Smith 1 February 2017

Explaining the buzzwords of the moment: What is love and what's going on in our bodies when we’re in love?

Our weekly series What The Heck Is… sheds light on the strange unexplained acronyms and unfamiliar buzzwords that creep into our everyday lives.

From Blue Monday to clean eating we’re on a mission to explain the difficult to explain.

It’s that time of the year again, Valentine’s Day is just around the corner, and there’s a certain romanticism filling the air.

So this month The Memo is exploring love and relationships in all their various forms as part of our Future of Love month.

But first things first, what exactly is this butterflies-in-the-stomach feeling we’re talking about?

So what the heck is love?

Hearts racing, flushed cheeks and clammy hands might be the obvious signs of attraction, lust or yes, love, but there’s a lot more going on.

A cocktail of organic chemicals are racing around our bodies, released by the mere presence of others, which collectively are called ‘love’.

And these drugs come in waves.

Once you’ve moved beyond the purely ‘lust’ phase (dictated by testosterone and estrogen in men and women), a collection of these drugs come into play triggering ‘attraction’.

Dopamine (a reward-based stimulant also triggered by cocaine and nicotine), norepinephrine (AKA adrenaline), and serotonin (linked with feelings of well-being and happiness) all lead to that feeling where you can think of nothing else but that special someone. They also lower your appetite and sleep requirements.

But lust and attraction can’t last forever, we would be a very unproductive species if they did, so next comes ‘attachment’.

The couple that sleeps together, stays together?

There are two hormones that trigger our long-lasting commitment to each other and, yes, both are triggered by sex.

The first, oxytocin, is released during childbirth and is known to cement the bond between mother and child.

More crucially when it comes to love, oxytocin is released by both sexes during orgasm and is thought to promote a similar bond.

There’s a theory that the more sex a couple has, the more oxytocin is released and the deeper their bond becomes.

The last chemical at play is the awkwardly named, but interestingly discovered, vasopressin.

It was thought that vasopressin was responsible for long-term relationships and the protection that people feel for each other.

In order to test the theory scientists gave male prairie voles a drug to suppress vasopressin and measure the effect on their long-term relationships with female prairie voles.

The scientists found that the bond between prairie voles deteriorated immediately, and they quickly failed to protect each other from new threats or suitors.

But why is this all important?

Love can feel deeply mysterious – at the same time elusive and all-encompassing.

When you’re in love your behaviour can seem totally bonkers, and when you’re heartbroken there’s literally no worse feeling in the world.

So during this month of love, no matter how you feel, now you know the swirling concoction of organic chemicals which, combined, make you feel the way you feel.

Our weekly series What The Heck Is… exists to shed light on the strange unexplained acronyms and unfamiliar buzzwords that creep into our everyday lives.