As we launch the second season of The Franklin Institute’s podcast, So Curious, we’re excited to take you on a journey through the science of love, sex, and relationships. It’s a fascinating set of stories, with entertaining forays into the mating habits of frogs, thought-provoking conversations about technology and society, and deeply human insights into how connections with others influence our mental and physical health.
But here’s one thing we learned through our conversations: love is complicated. There’s a cocktail of chemicals in your brain that accompany different phases of love—among others, testosterone and estrogen for lust, dopamine and serotonin for attraction, oxytocin for attachment. These chemical signals are involved in controlling a network of functional regions in your brain.
Using brain imaging technologies, scientists have discovered that in some regions, like your reward system, brain activity increases, in a response similar to the effect of addictive drugs. In other regions, like areas involved with judgment and self-control, brain activity decreases. Love indeed makes you loopy! And with new technologies, we are poised to understand the mechanics of love and social relationships in more detail than ever.
Recently, researchers at Northwestern University developed tiny implants in mice that allow precise control of targeted brain cells using light. Because these implants are wireless, the researchers were able to study freely moving mice, turn specific groups of brain cells off and on, and observe how social interactions were affected.
The complexity of love isn’t just in the brain. It also has a cascade of effects on our bodies, our health, and our society. Positive social relationships and a healthy sex life reduce stress, lower your blood pressure, improve anxiety, help your body heal faster, and more. When your brain’s reward system is activated by seeing your romantic partner, you feel less pain. Those chemical signals in your brain also make your heart beat stronger and faster—good exercise for your most important muscle.
People in love also tend to follow more healthy habits, like exercising or giving up drinking or smoking. Particularly in men, being in a positive relationship is associated with longer life. And good sexual and reproductive health for all people is a key public health priority as well. It’s been recognized globally as a human right, as part of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.
Not only are positive relationships, reproductive health, and supportive policies vitally important for individual well-being, they have long-term impacts on healthcare, education, and economics, especially for women and sexual and gender minorities around the world.
There’s so much more to discover about all the ways we navigate love, sex, and relationships in our world. We hope you’ll join us with your curiosity—and share it with someone you love!