What Happens to Your Brain When You Fall in Love, According to a Neuropsychologist & a Somatic Psychologist

Plus, the difference between romantic and platonic love

what happens to your brain when you fall in love illustration of two heads leaning on each other
Carol Yepes/getty images

My whip-smart colleagues at PureWow have taught me  (a lot of chemicals are released in the brain) and  (you’re less likely to make rational decisions), but what about all the stuff that comes in between? To learn more about what happens to your brain when you fall in love—including how long-term love looks different from brand-new love—I reached out to Dr. Brian Tierney, PhD, a somatic psychologist, and Dr. Sanam Hafeez, Psy.D, a neuropsychoglogist.

Meet the Experts

  • Dr. Brian Tierney, PhD (aka The Somatic Doctor), is a neuroscience professor at California Institute of Integral Studies and private practice psychotherapist. Tierney holds a PhD in Somatic Psychology and has, for more than a decade, been an international trainer of somatic clinicians. As a somatic practitioner trainer, Tierney helps people in working more skillfully with the physiology of the nervous system to build resilience, release trauma and alleviate chronic pain.
  • Dr. Sanam Hafeez, Psy.D, is an NYC-based neuropsychologist and school psychologist.  She is also the founder and director of Comprehensive Consultation Psychological Services, P.C. Hafeez graduated from Queens College, CUNY, with a BA in psychology, and then went on to earn her Master of Science in Psychology at Hofstra University. Hafeez provides neuropsychological educational and developmental evaluations in her practice and also works with children and adults who suffer from PTSD, learning disabilities, autism, attention and memory problems, trauma and brain injury, abuse, childhood development and psychopathology.

What Regions of the Brain Are Involved in Love? 

Hafeez explains that the regions of the brain involved in love are the amygdala, the hypothalamus, the nucleus accumbens and the prefrontal cortex. Here’s how she tells me each of those regions plays a part:

  1. The amygdala serves as the hub for processing emotions, spanning from fear to pleasure. “Its involvement extends to the emotional reactions characteristic of love, such as attraction and attachment,” Hafeez explains.
  2. The hypothalamus, she continues, is “responsible for regulating fundamental bodily functions like hunger and thirst, [and] also orchestrates the release of bonding hormones like oxytocin and vasopressin.” Oxytocin and vasopressin are released during sex, breastfeeding, and childbirth.
  3. The nucleus accumbens, Hafeez notes, is a pivotal component of the brain's reward system. “[It] triggers feelings of pleasure and reinforcement, particularly during experiences of romantic love and attachment.”
  4. The prefrontal cortex, finally, is known for its role in higher cognitive functions, including decision-making and social behavior. When we’re thinking in terms of the brain in love, Hafeez tells me that the prefrontal cortex, “Guides the formation and sustenance of romantic relationships by processing social cues and managing emotions.”

For his part, Tierney likes to think about the brain’s connection to love in terms of two types of love—chocolate love and oatmeal love. (These aren’t scientific terms but can be useful for non-science people.) “Oatmeal love is the type of sustaining love that withstands the test of time and the ups and downs of relationships,” he tells me. “In brain biology, oatmeal love is driven by a powerful chemical cocktail that circulates through neural networks involved with the formation of long-term attachment bonds.” Chocolate love, on the other hand, tends to be less sustainable. Tierney says, “It is associated with short-term surges of chemicals in the brain that pair with the idealizing images we see in human narratives involving romantic and sexual love.”

What Happens to Your Brain When You Fall in Love?

  1. Regions associated with attachment are activated. Hafeez tells me, “Areas of the brain linked to attachment, such as the amygdala and hypothalamus, become more active,” as you fall in love. “This reinforces your emotional attachment to your partner and strengthens your desire to be close to them.”
  2. Increased focus on your partner. Think about times when you’ve been in love. Your brain likely puts your partner at the forefront, right? Hafeez says, “This can result in heightened attention, increased empathy and a desire to understand and support your partner.”
  3. The brain releases vasopressin from the hypothalamus. As mentioned previously, vasopressin, alongside oxytocin, is released by the hypothalamus. Per Tierney, “Vasopressin does all sorts of things, from managing water retention to modulating blood pressure and driving social behaviors.”
  4. Altered perception of risk and reward. Love can make people do kooky things—it’s a fact. “Falling in love can influence how your brain evaluates risks and rewards,” Hafeez says. “You may be more willing to take risks or make sacrifices for the sake of your relationship, as the perceived rewards of love outweigh the potential drawbacks.”
what happens to your brain when you fall in love overhead photo of couple kissing
Maskot/getty images

How Does Long-Term Love Differ in the Brain from New Love/Lust?

Let’s talk infatuation versus love. “Long-term attachment bonding involves oxytocin and brain opioids, as well as prolactin and other feel-good molecules such as dopamine,” Tierney says. “These molecules get stimulated when we are in love and are prime drivers in both caring feelings over time, and the formation of attachment-related neural networks.” Those feelings of new infatuation are different, he explains. “Lust is more about procreation, though it shares a common chemical with the attachment care system, oxytocin.”

Hafeez tells me that in the early stages of infatuation or new love, the brain experiences a surge of neurotransmitters associated with reward and pleasure, like dopamine and norepinephrine, leading to intense feelings of euphoria and heightened motivation to pursue the relationship. During this phase, she says, brain regions implicated in reward processing, like the nucleus accumbens, are highly active and contribute to the intense pleasure and desire associated with infatuation. “However, as the relationship progresses into long-term love, there is a shift towards activation of brain regions associated with attachment and bonding, such as the hypothalamus and parts of the prefrontal cortex,” she explains. “These regions support feelings of security, trust and emotional intimacy, fostering a deeper connection between partners.”

How Does Romantic Love Differ in the Brain from Other Types of Love (Platonic, Familial, etc.)?

“Romantic love differs from platonic and familial love because it fundamentally involves the lust system with its different feel-good molecules,” Tierney tells me, adding, “Non-romantic love has to do with the durable bonds sculpted by the care system of the brain.” Hafeez explains that romantic love differs from other types of love in terms of the neural pathways involved, the intensity of emotions and the behavioral manifestations. From a hormone standpoint, for example, romantic love is often characterized by fluctuations in hormones such as dopamine, oxytocin and vasopressin, which play key roles in arousal, bonding, and attachment. “While these hormones are also involved in other types of love, their levels and patterns of release may differ,” Hafeez says. Additionally, romantic love is characterized by intense feelings of passion, desire and romantic attraction towards a specific individual. “This type of love often involves idealization of the partner and a strong focus on physical and emotional intimacy,” per Hafeez. “In contrast, platonic or familial love may emphasize companionship, mutual respect and shared experiences without the same level of romantic attraction or sexual desire.”

sarah stiefvater

Wellness Director

Sarah Stiefvater is PureWow's Wellness Director. She's been at PureWow for ten years, and in that time has written and edited stories across all categories, but currently focuses...