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The Neurobiology of Love:  Is Monogamy A Choice?
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The Neurobiology of Love: Is Monogamy A Choice?

Mia Ross gets nerdy about love and attachment.
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Nurse Mia Ross explores the biology of love, or rather, the neurobiology of love.  Is monogamy a choice?  What about cheating?  It might be a matter of science.


Valentine’s Day is just around the corner.  A day dedicated to love, relationships and devotion.  Believe it or not, it’s also the perfect time to discuss monogamy.  Many people believe that monogamy and long-term relationships are human constructs created to keep people and society in order, but the truth is, humans are not the only species in the animal world who form these attachments.  After mating, the prairie vole (not to be confused with a mole or a prairie dog) commits to one partner throughout their life span.  Interestingly, a large amount of our understanding of love and attachment in biological terms has been through studying these fascinating little North American rodents.  Below are a few salient points about the love lives of these creatures and how it may translate to understanding our own behavior:

It’s (mostly) in the brain:  The prairie vole has a close relative named the montane vole.  The main difference between these two species is that the prairie vole remains monogamous after mating while the montane vole is notorious for promiscuity.  What causes this difference?  As it turns out, it’s (mostly) in the brain.  The long-term attachment observed in the prairie vole is directly related to the location of oxytocin and vasopressin receptors in the brain.  Oxytocin and vasopressin are two hormones closely tied with attachment and intimacy.  In the prairie vole, these receptors are mostly located in the limbic (emotional) area of the brain and are highly active while the same receptors in the montane vole brains are located outside of the emotional center and mostly repressed.

Attachment style is malleable:  When oxytocin and vasopressin receptors are blocked in the brains of the prairie vole, the voles become promiscuous. When these same receptors are activated within the brains of the montane vole, they choose one partner for the long haul.  This means the voles’s attachment preferences can be altered by changing hormone levels.

Love is pleasure (at least in the beginning):  Dopamine, another neurotransmitter in the brain, causes sensations of pleasure.  In humans, this surge can be activated for a variety of reasons including eating sugar, gambling, doing drugs, and even excessive social media usage.  A dopamine surge may also be responsible for the euphoria of a new romance.  One research study shows that the influx of dopamine may be what makes new love such an adventure and grants new lovers the ability to talk on the phone all night and lose both their appetites and ability to concentrate.

These findings help us better understand the neurobiology of love, but there is much more to be discovered.  Can a person be predisposed to infidelity because they lack of oxytocin receptors in the brain?  If so, could the administration of intranasal oxytocin enhance relationships?  Is there a way to keep that new-love luster alive for longer periods of time by toying with dopamine?  Can we really even compare the intricate emotional life a human to that a prairie vole?  Time will tell.  Science may never be able to explain the intense, profound, spiritual experience of love.  My suggestion?  Enjoy every morsel anyway.

4 Comments

  • Helen Fowler says:

    Great article Mia! It is perfect for Valentine’s Day. The science is most interesting.

    • Lesley Ross says:

      This article was very interesting and can be used in my Science/Health class for Valentine’s Day. Perfect!

      • Mia Ross BSN RN Mia Ross BSN RN says:

        Thanks for reading, Lesley. Tell your students that what they consider love may be just in their heads!

    • Mia Ross BSN RN Mia Ross BSN RN says:

      Thanks for reading, Helen. I agree. I think the power of oxytocin as an intimacy-inducer has a lot of potential. Keep an eye out for more.

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