The Science of Attraction

At the time you met your partner, you had probably met a few hundred new people in the previous twelve months. You met some of them at work, others socially, a few in the gym – yet, out of all those hundreds, just one person pressed your buttons and excited you to the core. What drives this process of attraction?

Finding a successful partner is no simple process, but it starts with the unseen: a complicated mixture of hormones.

From the initial attraction to the sexual chemistry to the long-term love that a couple needs to rear their children, three different hormonal systems work together to create and maintain that fire. Given that our bodies are driven by an astonishing array of these chemicals, it is worth spending a moment finding out how hormones work in the context of attraction:

  1. Firstly, and perhaps obviously, we need to be attracted to someone. There might be 500 people in a room, but just one of them gets our pulse racing. Once that trigger is pulled, we oftentimes cannot stop thinking about them; we may even start to obsess. Chemically, this is what happens: that one person causes our brain to release that well-known neurotransmitter dopamine. The better our dopamine system, the more active the attraction process is[i]. That dopamine excitement can still be in play even years later – when we see our partner or catch a hint of their fragrance. That said, this is not the same intense attraction that we felt in the first few months of the relationship, and that is because, back then, nature gave us an extra hormone to lock us in to chasing that special person. That turbo-charged excitement is caused by PEA, which stands for phenylethylamine, and it acts by releasing even more of the attraction neurotransmitter – dopamine[i].
  2. Secondly, we need to desire sexually the person who has attracted us. A number of hormones are implicated in this process, but far and away the winner for men and women is testosterone. As we age and our testosterone level declines, our libido drops too. Topping up testosterone in men improves libido and a sense of well-being[i]. In women, the sex drive can be a little more complicated; however testosterone replacement is very important[i]. In both cases, this is a sensitive, finely calibrated process.
  3. Thirdly, we need to stay attached to our partner for years to ensure that our offspring grow up safely. This intimacy is driven by the hormones oxytoxin and vassopressin, both of which are produced in the brain[i]. Oxytocin is often referred to informally as the ‘cuddle hormone’, and is associated with physical contact and the trust we feel for someone we love. When our partner is away from us, our oxytocin level drops and we can feel separation anxiety and depression. Starve someone of all human contact for any length of time and they can become so silently depressed that it can cause the brain to shrink[i]. Those who manage to stay happily together in a partnership that involves plenty of hugs and regular sex can expect to live longer than those who are alone[i].

The successful propagation of our species, then, relies on an amazing mixture of attraction, lust and attachment, all in balance. If we run low on these chemicals there are a few things we can do:

  • Chocolate contains PEA, the supercharged hormone that boosts dopamine and also releases feel-good chemicals such as endorphin.
  • Any exciting outdoor activity will release dopamine to give us a positive rush. We can trigger dopamine in less healthy ways too with sugar, caffeine, alcohol and cigarettes; however, relying too heavily on these substances leads to cravings and addictions.
  • Low testosterone can be topped up with testosterone cream or injections. Magnesium, zinc and the plant tribulus terrestris are supplemental alternatives.
  • Oxytocin, or the cuddle hormone, can be bought in a nasal spray where it has a direct effect on the brain. However, natural ways to release oxytocin would be having a massage, or cuddling your pet.

So, the next time you meet someone you are attracted to, spare a thought for the myriad of hormones co-ordinating behind the scenes to give you those wonderful brain sensations.

[i] Ferrari F et al. Sexual attraction and copulation in male rats: Effects of the dopamine agonist SND 919. Pharmacol Biochem and Behaviour. 1995: 50: 29-34.

[i] Murata M et al. Effect of beta-phenylethylamine on extracellular concentrations of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens and prefrontal cortex. Brain Res. 2009: 1269. 40-6.

[i] Miner MM et al. 12-month observation of testosterone replacement effectiveness in a general population of men. Postgrad Med. 2013: 125: 8-18.

[i] Bancroft J. Starling review. The endocrinology of sexual arousal. Journal of Endocrinology. 2005: 186: 411-427. Read more

[i] Helen Fischer. The new psychology of love. The drive to love: the neural mechanism for mate selection. Read more

[i] Kirsten Weir. The lasting impact of neglect. Amrcian Psychological Association. 2014; 45 (6): 36.

[i] Kaplan RM et al. Marital status and longevity in the United States population. J Epidemiol Comm Health. 2006: 60: 760-5.




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