It’s Valentine’s day, and that can mean only one thing: chocolate is in the air.
No, no I’m sorry. Love. Love is in the air. Though you have to admit, chocolate is pretty important too. For those of us with an irrepressible sweet tooth, chocolate may even be better than kissing, as claimed in this 2007 study by the BBC. Why are we so tempted each year to hand out sweet, addictive Valentines to our sweethearts? Could it be that romantic passion, like chocolate, is in itself addicting?
If neuroscience has anything to say about romance – and what is more romantic than two neurons with electricity between them? – then love can be as addictive as any drug.
During the first six to eight months of courtship, as the foundation for long-term commitment and trust is being built, our brains go into chemical overload. The anxiety center of the brain, known as the amygdala, gets turned down to a dulcet whisper. Meanwhile the pleasure centers of the limbic system release large amounts of dopamine and other happy hormones like flower girls throwing petals at a wedding. This boost of peacefulness and joy helps two lovers to fall head over heels for one another, but the powerful chemical rewiring of our brains can help us fall in love with other things in the process; flowers, cheesy songs, that little French bistro, and of course… chocolate.
This period of new love is exciting, but also addictive. Even during separations as brief as five to six hours, smitten partners are often beset with intense cravings for the other person. Eventually this buzz wears off, and many couples fear that the “spark” has gone out. But not to worry. While your brain may not be sending out massive highs of dopamine anymore, it is continuing to cement the partnership with longer-term trust-inducing chemicals like vasopressin and oxytocin, which become increasingly important during parenthood.
If you’re worried about rekindling that spark of first date dopamine, just remember that a plastic brain is attracted to novelty. I don’t mean a plastic novelty Halloween prop, but a healthy, neuroplastic brain with a robust neurological safety net. The best way to keep the romance alive – and keep your brain healthy in the process – is to keep your daily experiences varied and new. Since long-term love activates areas of the brain linked to critical judgement, it’s extra fun to test your significant other with a fresh and stimulating mental challenge. I personally recommend the sweet puzzler Chocolate Fix, but… I might have an addiction.
-Amanda Cook (Marbles BrainCoach)