Why do lovers talk at night

The big mistake of love

Countless dramas, quarrels and wrong decisions are based on a fatal confusion between being in love and love. Both feelings are nice. And both are important for living together. But they have little to do with each other. This is now proven by completely new results from brain research.

The man complains of loss of appetite and hardly sleeps at night. In addition to racing his heart, he has dizziness attacks. He has trouble concentrating, occasionally stutters, and shows the first symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder. With all of this, he feels more euphoric than ever. The malicious virus that has infected him is called Charlotte. The diagnosis: the man is in love.

A phenomenon as old as the human species! Always an occasion for lyrical outpouring as well as for ridicule and to this day the material of countless romance novels, movie jokes and pop songs. Above all, however, the astonishing state of being in love is also the source of a great mistake: it is repeatedly mistaken for love. It is even considered to be their actual and passionate form and the essence from which (marital) happiness is distilled.

In reality, love and being in love are only broadly related in the large family of feelings. They are based on different biological processes and fulfill different functions in coexistence. Both "programs" have proven to be very useful for the survival of the human species - but confusing them was and is the cause of countless heartbeats and wrong decisions. The latest scientific evidence of the difference between the infatuation high and the poignant feeling called love comes from brain and hormone research. The results of the New York anthropologist Helen Fisher, who researched the brains of 40 (happily or unhappily) students in love, are groundbreaking. The renowned scientist has now published it in her new book "Why we love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love".

The main goal of the researcher was to find out what happens in the brain when people are in love. More precisely, which areas are involved in this barely grapefruit-sized organ when the aforementioned Henry languishes for Charlotte - and vice versa. And what neurochemicals feed and keep this strange state going.

For the experiment, researcher Fisher brought the students to a rather unromantic place: their heads were pushed into the tube of a computer tomograph for twelve minutes each time. A mirror placed over the eyes enabled them to look at a screen with photos outside the tube. Each subject looked at the picture of the loved one for 30 seconds. Only young men and women were selected who had recently been in love - at most just seven months.

In order for the brain to switch back to neutral afterwards, the test subjects had to look at a number and mentally count backwards in steps of seven. Helen Fisher then presented them with an emotionally meaningless picture. The test series was carried out six times with each subject. The scientists took a total of 144 images per brain, which were later analyzed over many years.

Helen Fisher's experiments are [...] based on a central finding that enables scientists today to look directly into the circuit diagrams of the brain. As soon as brain cells are active, they take up more blood. Because, unlike resting cells, they need oxygen so that they can do their job. The increased blood flow can be seen in the images: Active areas light up, while the others remain darker. Transferred to Helen Fisher's experiment: In the tube it could be made visible which regions shine when lovers look at the object of their longing, and where the brain lights up when they look at an emotionally neutral image. Because it is now known which types of nerves are connected to which brain regions, Helen Fisher and her team were also able to read from the images which neurochemicals are involved in the feeling of being in love.

The first results already showed where in the brain the state of being in love is "at home". In both men and women, two specific areas of the brain become particularly active: the so-called caudate nucleus, a C-shaped part in the middle of the brain rich in receptors for the hormone dopamine. And the VTA region, a sector in the brain stem, the oldest part of the brain. Researchers see it as a "dopamine factory" - as a producer of the messenger substance that is referred to as an infatuation drug. This body's own stimulant will be discussed in more detail in a moment. First important findings about the "geography" of enamored and loving brains.

In a detailed analysis of the brain recordings of ten women and seven men, Helen Fisher not only found the commonality already mentioned, but also a gender difference. In the brain of the women in love, areas were active that are responsible for attention and the processing of feelings and memories. In the case of men, on the other hand, areas in the upper temporal lobe that stand for sexual arousal (including erection) and visual stimulation glowed. Even the brain shows that men are more "eye people" than women during sex. "No wonder," says Helen Fisher, "after all, for millions of years they have been checking women out to see if they can give birth and are healthy."

But how and where does the brain light up when the intoxication of being in love has subsided - and familiar love develops? The German scientist Andreas Bartels from the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tübingen and his colleague Semir Zeki from the University College in London investigated this question. They worked with a similar experimental set-up as the anthropologist Helen Fisher. With the difference that the participants in their experiment had been with their partner for an average of 2.3 years. The astonishing result: The computed tomography showed a different picture for them. Now areas in the brain that lie fallow in people who were newly in love - the anterior cingulate cortex - were also active. Both are still relatively unexplored regions on the map of the brain. Scientists suspect, however, that they are responsible for processing the chaos of emotions. For example, to reconcile feelings with memories, to make one's own emotions aware and to assess other people's feelings.

So love and being in love do not have the same home in the brain. Not only these "regional" differences, but also the associated neurochemical differences make it clear that the emotional states are not identical. Their respective chemistries differ like a stimulant from a relaxation drink.

Let's go back to Henry, who is in love. The moment Charlotte enters his life, a cocktail takes over the direction of his life, which nature has mixed to put us in love. Above all the dopamine mentioned above, but also other neurotransmitters such as norepinephrine.
Norepinephrine gives those in love wings; Henry feels unimagined energy, although he hardly turns a blind eye at night for so much love. The love drug dopamine makes his pulse go faster and creates euphoric feelings of happiness. The blood vessels constrict, the blood pressure rises, the heart pounds. Henry's hands get sweaty with excitement. He breathes faster. He feels like he's lost the ground under his feet. He gets dizzy. He hardly feels hungry anymore, but the famous butterflies in his stomach.

While dopamine makes him focus his attention on a single object, namely Charlotte, on a few days he even fails the simple task of making himself a cup of coffee. Let alone do your job properly. He gropes through the world in a kind of mist of love. However, once it comes to Charlotte, his senses are sharpened. And his lust comes into full swing - because dopamine stimulates testosterone production.

"The messenger substance may even explain why men and women in love are dependent on their romantic relationship, eagerly longing to be reunited with their lover," says researcher Helen Fisher. "The symptoms of being in love can be compared with the addiction to drugs, which is also linked to increased dopamine levels." But there is also a bitter drop in the cocktail: the serotonin levels in lovers have been shown to level off at a low level. Usually, low blood serotonin levels are a sign of anxiety. And - as Italian scientists from the University of Pisa found - also an indication of an incipient obsessive compulsive disorder.

So it's no wonder that lovers like Henry, with all their love happiness, also suffer from enormous fears of loss and even fall emotionally, just because Charlotte's call is a long time coming. The falling serotonin level could also be the reason why people in love think incessantly, almost compulsively, of their partner, envision being with him or her, over and over again. The neurologist Antonio Damasio of the University of Iowa described being in love as a short-term "brain damage". To put it less acutely: It is a state of emergency that makes you happy and unhappy at the same time. Creates energy and on the other hand steals it. But it fulfills an important task: it is nature's initial spark that is supposed to guarantee our reproduction. Without him, men and women would find it much more difficult to find each other and be able to overcome the fear of closeness with strange individuals that is also implanted in us. Instead of Charlotte's beautiful blue eyes, Henry might just notice her resemblance to his (unloved) cousin and get back to his work. Or think so much about the pros and cons of connecting with her that things fail in advance.

Once the course has been set, the state of infatuation has done its part. And then it inevitably passes. Sometimes it only lasts a few weeks, at most 30 months. And then? Then there is a disenchantment that breaks up fleeting love affairs.

But also couples who have actually made up their minds for each other have a hard time skidding. They believe that their "love" is over and the air is out. The sex is not that exciting anymore. The fog clears and with it the partner's "mistakes" become visible. Everyone who has been in love knows this creeping awakening. And also the associated impulse to start over. With a new Charlotte, a new Henry.

But what looks like the end of love is just the end of the dopamine high and can actually be the beginning of affection and connection. If the partners are ready to “carry on” with patience and curiosity, a new hormonal program is activated from a chemical point of view.

In addition to the lust-maker testosterone, the so-called cuddle hormones oxytocin and vasopressin now have their effect. Oxytocin, sometimes called the happiness hormone, is always involved wherever feelings of attachment and love arise. For example, immediately after the birth of a baby, when the mother takes her newborn baby in her arms for the first time. Or when she breastfeeds it. But even when man and woman lie next to each other after orgasm. The neuro-hormone vasopressin is also involved in the creation of bonds. This was recently even proven in animal experiments. "Guinea pigs" were male prairie wolves. Wolves are naturally monogamous. Once a couple has found each other, they usually stay together for life. In the experiment, single wolves were injected with the hormone vasopressin. Immediately they began to defend their territory and took on the first wolf they came across as a loyal and possessive partner. In a second series of tests, however, the body's own vasopressin production in the brain was prevented. Now the wolves had nothing better to do than cheat at the next opportunity.

In addition to oxytocin and vasopressin, the hormone cocktail of love also includes endorphins: These opium-like substances produced by the body create well-being, dampen fears and create a slight euphoria. The lovers become almost addicted to their daily bursts of endorphin, and miss each other painfully as soon as they are separated from each other.

Back to Henry and Charlotte: When they have started a family, the excitement of being in love has subsided and the champagne corks pop less often, a new hormone cocktail can instead provide (sexual) satisfaction and keep the desire for closeness alive. If they stay together despite minor and major crises, the feeling of togetherness and solidarity grows. A state in which, in contrast to being in love, no expiration date is programmed in.

But there is no guarantee of durability here either. We humans are in a dilemma, explains Helen Fisher. "We are made for two opposing things: to bond - and to fall in love again and again." But changing partners is also beneficial from an evolutionary point of view: It supports the generation of children with different partners - and thus genetic diversity.

A few years ago Helen Fisher caused quite a stir with her thesis that humans - like robins, foxes and many other living beings - were made for "serial monogamy". The natural duration of the man-woman relationship is around four years. Quite exactly the period in which the common child is not only weaned, but also "out of the woods". Now, when Professor Fisher examined the current divorce records of 58 nations, she found that the world's divorce peak is actually four years.

But no one is forced to separate. As we mature, we are less and less a slave to our biochemistry. And learn from our experiences, both good and bad. The insight that love is something other than being in love can protect against wrong decisions and help to develop tolerance - for the partner and for oneself. In addition, love always causes surprises that also astonish scientists. Helen Fisher cited a survey in which women and men who had been together for 20 years were much more likely to have a romantic passion for one another than the control group of couples who had been married for five years. Maybe just a single result. But maybe also an indication that love holds many more secrets than a glance at the circuit diagrams of the brain suggests.

claudia bodin

This text is a large quotation according to § 51 No. 1 UrhG