No wonder Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy experienced such dizzying highs and lows on their journey to matrimony. Neuroscience explains that emotions are the result of complex chemical interactions within the brain, and romantic love is a particularly confusing cocktail. 

The Chemistry of Emotion & Behavior is a first-year seminar course in which students read and discuss peer-reviewed literature to gain a better understanding of the biochemical basis for emotion, behavior and personality.

Randy Coleman, professor of chemistry, designed the course 20 years ago and has been teaching it ever since. Coleman will be retiring in May after 54 years of dedicated service at W&M, so this is the final semester that the course will be offered.

“It’s been a fun class to teach,” said Coleman. “It’s wonderful to see young men and women get excited about the brain and chemistry. By the time the course has ended, they begin to understand that what’s going on in their brains is being exhibited in their behaviors.”

“When people fall in love, their brains kick out quite a few chemicals, leading to many different behaviors. People are, more or less, ‘crazy in love.’”

Randy Coleman
Randy Coleman, professor of chemistry (Courtesy photo)

Learning these concepts benefits students on both academic and personal levels.

“Taking this course allowed me to enact empathy on a whole new level,” said Charlotte Bandekow ’27. “It’s not just the amazing topics, well-chosen readings and student-led discussions that make the class so highly demanded – it’s largely in part because of Professor Coleman himself. He is such an intelligent and inspirational individual. Most importantly, he cares deeply about each and every one of his students.”

Coleman enjoys being in the classroom year round, but there are particular connections that he likes to make in the spring semester.

“I love teaching this course in the spring because I like to get students thinking about love and the chemicals in the brain that are important for that,” said Coleman. “When people fall in love, their brains kick out quite a few chemicals, leading to many different behaviors. People are, more or less, ‘crazy in love.’”

The biochemical basis of love

Coleman explained that students enjoy learning about the roles that various chemicals play in the process of falling in love.

For example, oxytocin, a hormone that promotes bonding and decreases stress and anxiety, can be released by the brain in response to stimuli like touch, exercise or music. The interaction of oxytocin and vasopressin, another hormone that increases when people fall in love, plays a key role in social bonding and maintaining romantic relationships.

Meanwhile, dopamine, a neurotransmitter that’s part of the brain’s reward pathway, is released in large quantities, resulting in strong feelings of pleasure. The brain also increases the availability of norepinephrine, which plays a crucial role in the “fight or flight” response to stress. The combination of increased dopamine and norepinephrine makes people feel elated and energized, likely contributing to decreased appetite and restlessness.

Additionally, levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin drop in the initial, intense stage of love, which may play a role in the infatuation that often accompanies a new romantic prospect. Serotonin levels return to normal later in the relationship, aiding in pair bonding.

Coleman explained that familial and platonic love involve many of the same chemicals as romantic love, but levels and proportions differ.

“People might have higher levels of those chemicals while with their love partners as compared to family and friends,” said Coleman. “Depending on the quantities released by the brain, the blend of chemicals probably differs but still provides feelings of pleasure, contentment and happiness.”

The brain’s most likely motive in these endeavors is to encourage procreation and survival. Romantic love often leads to reproduction, ensuring continuation of the species, while familial and platonic love are likely tied to humans being social animals who have historically benefited from cooperative behavior.

The course delves into other emotions, too, and the small class size and respectful atmosphere allow students to openly discuss a variety of topics.

“This class taught me what it was like to sit down and talk about my thoughts, feelings and curiosity with people from various backgrounds,” said biology major Aqsa Atif  ’24. “I formed intimate connections with my classmates because of the small class size and discussion-based structure. Additionally, Professor Coleman was always a ray of sunshine in the classroom at 8 in the morning!”

Randy Coleman leads a discussion in the classroom. (Courtesy photo)

Simple steps can encourage optimal brain function

A perpetually popular topic in classroom discussion is the connection between lifestyle and brain health.

“This class ignited a passion within me to explore psychoneuroimmunological therapy, which is the study of interactions between behavior, neural and endocrine function and immune processes, for neurodegenerative diseases and cancer,” said biology major Sofia Najjar ’26. “It’s a field I am eager to delve into deeply in my future careers as a physician and a scientist. Professor Coleman and my peers in the class instilled in me an understanding that the intricate interplay between the mind and body holds immense potential for improving human health and well-being.”

One of the key components of that well-being, Coleman explained, is a healthy, diverse microbiome. 

“Gut bacteria produce a lot of things that are essential for brain health,” said Coleman. “These include short chain fatty acids and many important vitamins that our bodies can’t manufacture. The microbiome also produces serotonin, which is an important mood setter in our central nervous system. It’s a neurotransmitter that can end up in our brains, so what you eat really can set a mood for your behavior.”

To nourish the important microbes living in the digestive tract, Coleman recommends a colorful diet chock-full of fresh fruits and vegetables.

Regular physical activity can also foster brain health. Studies indicate that exercise lifts mood, reduces the risk of cognitive decline and improves memory and sleep patterns.

“It goes beyond just delivering more oxygen to the brain,” said Coleman. “In the midst of exercise, the body produces chemicals, like endorphins and dopamine, that help the brain set a better mood.”

Coleman, who is often joined by students for walks on campus, recommends 30 minutes of moderate exercise at least five days per week. He also recommends setting aside sufficient time for sleep.

“During sleep, the interstitial spaces in the brain enlarge,” said Coleman. “That allows for better flow of cerebrospinal fluid, flushing out some of the harmful chemicals that build up during waking hours. It also plays a key role in consolidating memories, so getting plenty of sleep is tremendously important for overall brain health.”

Activities like meditation and yoga can also contribute to a healthier brain. Thus, Coleman is delighted about the recent creation of the McLeod Tyler Wellness Center, which provides a calming environment for students to practice meditation, yoga and creative arts, receive an oxytocin and endorphin-boosting massage or quietly observe nature in a relaxing environment.

“Monks in Far Eastern religions who meditate for hours every day have regions of the brain that are very different in construction than a typical person who doesn’t do a lot of meditation,” said Coleman. “Those regions seem to help the individual in terms of their overall health and ability to relax and overcome adversity.”

Studying and discussing these topics encourages students to explore areas of their own well-being and often inspires them to progress further into the study of neuroscience to help others.

“Being in this class gave me the opportunity to learn about concepts that interested me from someone who was extremely knowledgeable and accessible, and also to discuss and explore those topics with my peers in an overwhelmingly positive and supportive environment,” said Josie Binkley ’26. “Taking Chemistry of Emotion not only solidified my own passion for neuroscience as a field, but also my confidence in myself as a student and William & Mary as an institution.”

, Research Writer