The Science Of Falling In Love : Short Wave Ever wonder what's causing all those reactions in your body when you're falling in love with someone? We certainly did. So, we called up Adam Cole, who gathered up all the science and wrote "A Neuroscience Love Song" for NPR's Skunk Bear back in the day. Follow Maddie Sofia and Adam Cole on Twitter. Email love letters to the show at

Is This Love? Or Am I Gonna Fight A Lion?

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All right, y'all. You know what day it is - Valentine's Day. It's all about celebrating love between you and your new love, your partner of years or just love between friends. OK, that's it.

That's all I've got for that voice. Love comes in many forms. And at least in my experience, it can be complicated, exciting and, honestly, very clammy and nervous. On a biological level, there's so much happening in your brain, in your heart - that little tummy gets butterflies. So we've been brainstorming all month about who's the right person to break all that down for you listeners, and then it hit us. Who better to explain it than Adam Cole?

Would you describe yourself as a smooth guy?

ADAM COLE: No (laughter). No, Maddie, I would not.

SOFIA: The man...

COLE: Yeah, I'm not very smooth...

SOFIA: ...The myth...

COLE: ...In any way.

SOFIA: ...The legend of Skunk Bear, NPR's deceased science YouTube show. Rest in peace - because back in 2018, Adam wrote an absolute bop called "A Neuroscience Love Song" and thus became the definitive voice of love for the NPR SHORT WAVE team.


COLE: (Singing) When you looked in my direction, I thought my heart might explode - my heart was racing and I thought it might explode - because my sympathetic nervous system caused...

SOFIA: So today on the show, your body on love set to the dulcet tones of Adam Cole.


COLE: (Singing) When you looked in my direction, when you first looked into my eyes - when you looked into my eyes - my stress response diverted blood flow from my stomach and intestines, and it felt like...

SOFIA: OK. So, Adam, you kind of built this song so that the lyrics track the progression of what happens in the brain when that first little crush develops...


COLE: (Singing) When you first smiled at me, I did foolish things - really, really, really, really stupid things...

SOFIA: ...All the way up through the long-term romance. So let's start with that rush, that first intense crush phase.

COLE: Yeah. So I think everyone can identify with this feeling. When you first like-like someone, when you first are getting excited...

SOFIA: Double like.

COLE: ...Double - two likes - it's sort of a crisis. It's an emergency.

SOFIA: Right (laughter).

COLE: And you have these reactions that are sort of crazy. Like, you're reacting to seeing this person that you have a crush on in the same way that you would if you saw a lion on your way to work...

SOFIA: So it's, like, fight-or-flighty?

COLE: Fight-or-flighty, exactly. You have this response that - your heart might start beating faster. And there's a million songs about that, right...

SOFIA: Right.

COLE: ...About the heartbeat is the love beat and all this stuff. And then there's that feeling of sort of, oh, my stomach doesn't feel quite right...

SOFIA: Yeah.

COLE: ...And that has to do with, when you're in an emergency situation, you don't want to worry about digestion...

SOFIA: Yeah.

COLE: ...You want to worry about getting the hell out of there or fighting or fleeing, basically.

SOFIA: Right.

COLE: And so your body is paying less attention to that, which results in this sort of feeling of discomfort in...

SOFIA: Right.

COLE: ...Your stomach, butterflies.

SOFIA: Yeah. So the butterflies are actually the blood rushing to areas that could help you with fight or flight and leaving your tummy kind of like, well, we'll worry about digesting later.

COLE: Exactly.


COLE: (Singing) My stress response diverted blood flow from my stomach and intestines, and it felt like butterflies.

SOFIA: And your heart actually beats faster because, as you beautifully put, Adam, your sympathetic nervous system causes norepinephrine to stimulate your sinoatrial node.

COLE: That's right. The sinoatrial node is the node that keeps the pace of your heart.

SOFIA: Right.

COLE: And so stimulating it ups that pace.

SOFIA: OK. So this is kind of this, like, fight-or-flight situation, right? But there's also a lot that goes on with this reward system in your brain at this part, the dopamine system.

COLE: Absolutely, yeah.

SOFIA: Tell me, when we're in crush phase, what's going on with dopamine?

COLE: Yeah. So dopamine is a chemical messenger in the brain, and it's often associated with reward.

SOFIA: Right.

COLE: But in experiments, they see it's actually associated with the anticipation of reward.


COLE: So, for example, in one study, they gave monkeys a treat whenever they pressed a lever.

SOFIA: Sure.

COLE: And before they got their reward, before they even pressed the lever, they saw this spike of dopamine.

SOFIA: Sure.

COLE: But the fun thing about it is that if they only gave a treat half the time the lever was pressed, the monkey got even more dopamine. It was even more excited. The anticipation of that treat - is it going to happen or not? The uncertainty - you could see how that would relate to a crush or a relationship at the early stages. It's like, is this person going to like me? What's going to happen? Will they? Won't they?

SOFIA: Yeah.

COLE: It's all caught up in this feeling, this addictive feeling of anticipation of reward.

SOFIA: Right. And I think that's probably the most common in that initial phase, right?

COLE: And - but at the same time, another chemical in your brain, serotonin...

SOFIA: Right.

COLE: ...Is going down. And serotonin is a mood-regulating...

SOFIA: Sure. Sure, sure, sure.

COLE: ...Messenger. It sort of keeps you on an even keel in some ways. It's associated with a lot of different things. But you see lower rates of serotonin in people with anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder.

SOFIA: Right.

COLE: And people think that might have something to do with these feelings of obsession about your crush...

SOFIA: Right.

COLE: ...These feelings of sort of, like, being on edge. So you have this - you know, you're in an emergency. You're anxious.

SOFIA: Yes, a love emergency.

COLE: And yet at the same time, you're getting all this dopamine. And so this early stage of love is very exciting and compelling. And...

SOFIA: It's awful.

COLE: It's awful, but it's wonderful. And it's all happening in the brain.

SOFIA: Right. So at this phase, at crush phase, we've got dopamine going up, serotonin going down.

COLE: Exactly.


COLE: (Singing) Give me that dose of dopamine, hold the serotonin. Still going, growing stronger all the time. I love you - love you - and I'm never going to change my mind.

SOFIA: OK. So for better or for worse - I would say for better, honestly - a crush doesn't stay a crush forever. So let's talk about as you're pulling away from that honeymoon phase and you're settling into that relationship. Let's talk about that.

COLE: Yeah. So basically, the opposite happens. Now we see serotonin levels not rising to some weird level but sort of leveling out back to normal. And one of the things you see with dopamine is, as time goes on, you get lower spikes, where you used to have these off-the-chart readings.

SOFIA: Right. Right. So that's when you're not necessarily feeling, like, as strongly or as passionate. But maybe you feel like, you know, just a little bit more relaxed. You got the serotonin coming in there being like, everybody, be cool. We're fine.

COLE: Yeah.

SOFIA: But you don't get, like, that - as excited every time you, like, look at somebody, maybe.

COLE: That's right. And I think there are ways to sort of bring that dopamine back. Doing new things together is a way to...

SOFIA: Yeah. Yeah, because I was going to ask, well, how do you keep the romance alive, Love Doctor Professor Adam Cole?

COLE: (Laughter) And it makes total sense that when you are experiencing these dopamine spikes with someone by maybe going to a new country together or something like that, that becomes part of your relationship.


COLE: (Singing) I know oxytocin is the potion of devotion. Dial back that dopamine. Here comes serotonin.

SOFIA: So the hook to this song is oxytocin is the potion of devotion...

COLE: Of devotion.

SOFIA: ...Honestly, a great hook.

COLE: It's a lot of rhymes.

SOFIA: (Laughter) Yeah. Tell me about that.

COLE: Well, oxytocin is this chemical that, just like all the others we've talked about, has a lot of different roles in the body. It's often released when you have gentle physical touch. It's released during orgasm and childbirth. And it's been associated with social bonding...

SOFIA: Right.

COLE: ...Like the bond between a mother and a child. But it could also be pair bonding...

SOFIA: Right.

COLE: ...This sort of feeling of belonging and trust.

SOFIA: Yeah. So we're kind of talking about these neurotransmitters as this being - like, this is a reward, and this goes up and this goes down. But this is a little bit more complicated than that, right? There's no, like, one love hormone. These are some trends that scientists have been able to measure, but it's not really, totally the whole story.

COLE: Yeah. There's just a wonderful, beautiful complexity to the brain.

SOFIA: Sure.

COLE: And trying to paint any one neurochemical as having a specific role just doesn't tell the whole story.

SOFIA: Sure.

COLE: There's a lot going on there, and we're just, honestly, starting to figure out. So the things that we're talking about, as you said, they're trends that scientists have noticed. Hey, when you first are falling in love, dopamine is up...

SOFIA: Yeah.

COLE: ...And then five years later, little bit less.

SOFIA: Right.

COLE: But they are trends that have been really observed.

SOFIA: And I feel like we're just kind of starting to basically scrape the surface of what we know about the brain 'cause it's, like, we don't know that much.

COLE: It's true.

SOFIA: You know what I mean?

COLE: Yeah.

SOFIA: Well, Adam Cole, I think the only thing left to do is let you play you out. And quick note - this song has been stuck in my head for two years solid, so I'm really hoping that this helps with that.

COLE: We'll see (laughter).


COLE: (Singing) When you looked in my direction, I thought my heart might explode - my heart was racing and I thought it might explode - because my sympathetic nervous system caused norepinephrine to stimulate my sinoatrial node. When you looked in my direction, when you first looked into my eyes - when you looked into my eyes - my stress response diverted blood flow from my stomach and intestines, and it felt like butterflies.

Director's cut...


COLE: ...My favorite part of this part is that we threw the word Lepidoptera on the screen during that, which is the family of butterflies.


COLE: (Singing) And oh, oh, oh my lord, the anticipation of reward - that do-do-dopamine starts pumping.

SOFIA: Today's episode was produced by Rebecca Ramirez, edited by Viet Le and fact-checked by Berly McCoy. This neuroscience bop you are hearing was produced by now-freelance journalist Adam Cole and current NPR little doggy Ryan Kellman. You can find a link to the entire song in our episode notes.


COLE: (Singing) Doo-doo. Doo-doo, doo-doo. When you first smiled at me, I did foolish things - really, really, really, really stupid things - because my judgment was impaired by a reduction in activity in my amygdala in the frontal cortex of my brain.

Hey, I've just got a piece of advice for your listeners. Next time you're cuddling up to your honey...

SOFIA: Yeah.

COLE: ...At home, maybe with a glass of wine...

SOFIA: Sure.

COLE: ...Just throw on this song...

SOFIA: Yeah.

COLE: ...See what happens.

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