Ding. The sound alone sends your heart fluttering – and when a quick glance at your phone reveals the text is from your one and only, those butterflies increase tenfold. After eagerly opening it to read the rest, you can't help but smile. There's no denying that getting a message from your boo gives you a rush like no other, but what's behind that thrilling feeling? What happens in your brain when you get a text from someone you love is actually pretty wild. I would know — and not just because I've experienced it myself — but because I tapped two experts for a psychological play-by-play.
In order to grasp the complex reactions that are happening in your brain when a text rolls in from your SO, it’s crucial to understand how dopamine works. This powerful little chemical plays a major role in not only how you experience pleasure, but also when, how, and why you seek it out. According to Mary Kay Cocharo, a licensed marriage and family therapist, novel experiences automatically trigger a flood of dopamine to your system — and that includes getting a text from your boo out of the blue, especially when you weren’t expecting it or they say something new and different. To put things into perspective, a text from the one you love has the same effect as an orgasm — from a dopamine standpoint, at least. However, Cocharo points out that this response tends to be particularly strong in the early phases of dating when everything feels fresh.
“There is still so much we don’t know about our beloved and any information codes as new information,” she explains.
Dr. Carla Marie Manly, a clinical psychologist and relationship expert, adds that endorphins tend to increase when you are engaged in a positive activity — like reading a text from your favorite person. The positive effects of these neurochemicals have been well-studied. Not only can they make you feel more happy, confident, and optimistic, but they also act as natural pain, stress, and anxiety relievers.
"Endorphins are responsible for the 'high' that often results after receiving and reading a love-filled text," she tells Elite Daily.
The important thing to know about dopamine is that it controls your “goal-oriented” behaviors — in other words, what drives you to do what you do to feel good. In the 1940s, researchers James Olds and Peter Milner discovered the "pleasure center" of the brain when the implanted electrodes in the brains of rats, which enabled the animals to give themselves tiny electric shocks in the nucleus accumbens — the part of the brain where dopamine is released — by pressing a lever. The rats in the study became so addicted to triggering this sensation that they would even forgo food and water to focus on getting more of it. Pretty powerful stuff, huh?
Whether you know it or not, a text from your SO can provide the same positive reinforcement as those shocks did for the rats.
"From a motivational aspect, dopamine helps shift behavior toward the outcome that is most beneficial (another text)," explains Dr. Manly.
Interestingly enough, though, it seems that you get more of a rush when you're anticipating the reward — like when you see those three little dots indicating that your boo is responding — than when you actually experience the reward by reading what the message says.
“It is the expectation or hope of a reward that tends to increase dopamine levels in the brain," adds Dr. Manly. "This signals the brain to get excited in anticipation of the coming reward. The little bubble and dots signal the brain to increase dopamine. The brain remains alert and excited — motivated — to receive another reward — in this case, another feel-good text."
There's research to back this up, too. In 2008, researchers observed the brain activity in a group of gamblers and found that the nucleus accumbens (the pleasure center) didn't activate as much when a financial reward was received than when it was still anticipating it (such as when the wheels were turning or the dice was rolling). This led the researchers to conclude that "what draws us to act is not the sensation we receive from the reward itself but the need to alleviate the craving for that reward.” If you've ever felt insatiable giddiness when you spot your waiter coming over to your table with your food, this should make sense — and it totally applies when you can see that your boo is texting you back as well.
As a result of these reactions, you end up sort of stuck in a dopamine loop. Because once you've read that text from the object of your affection, you're left craving another hit of those euphoric feels.
"As humans, we tend to want more of whatever feels good to us," says Dr. Manly. "And, as connective texts are naturally mood-boosting, we generally hunger for more of the positive mental and emotional state. As a result, we’ll often engage in other reinforcing behavior that will increase the likelihood of getting another feel-good text in the future."
This explains why you might cleverly craft a response that inspires another text from your boo, such as by asking them a question or sparking up some flirty banter.
If you're in a long-term relationship, and you simply don't get the same high from your partner's texts anymore, fret not: experts say that's pretty normal. Very often, the unpredictability and novelty of an event are what drives up the dopamine release, so it's understandable if that response lessens once you've gotten used to getting texts from them. Think of it this way: The first time you eat a maple bacon donut, it's downright orgasmic. If you ate one seven days in a row, however, it wouldn't be nearly as exciting by the end of the week.
“I don’t actually get much of a thrill from my husband texting me after many years of marriage, to be honest,” Cocharo tells Elite Daily. “It’s usually about needing bread or wondering when I’ll be done working.”
How's that for reassuring? All that said, if you're missing those butterflies that used to come on any time your SO texted you, Dr. Manly notes that it is possible to re-capture the excitement.
"You can overcome the tendency to take simple gifts such as texts for granted by remaining mindfully aware of the precious nature of every positive interaction," she explains. "When you come from a place of true gratitude for every loving connection, you will continue to feel that same rush if you treat each text with the positive attention that you did when the relationship first began. If you don’t remain positive and grateful, you can become desensitized to the sweetest and most significant connective gestures."
Since unpredictability plays such a major role in dopamine levels, it's possible that you could get a stronger response in your brain if your partner varies up when they text you, or what they say. For example, you may get a far more intense high if they suddenly sext you in the middle of your workday, and that's totally out of the ordinary in your relationship.
From the moment that text from your love pops up on your screen, the immediate gratification generated by getting the text activates the reward pathways in your brain and triggers a release of dopamine. That influx of dopamine then motivates you to seek out more of the good vibes by engaging in a convo with the sender. Once you respond, you receive another dopamine rush while you anxiously and excitedly await their response — and on and on it goes. When you consider how little effort is required to fire off a text to someone you love, it seems like this is all the proof you need to get typing. Who knows? According to science, your text just might be the high point of their day.
Dr. Carla Marie Manly, clinical psychologist
Mary Kay Cocharo, licensed marriage and family therapist
Knutson, B., Wimmer, G. E., Kuhnen, C. M., & Winkielman, P. (2008). Nucleus accumbens activation mediates the influence of reward cues on financial risk taking. NeuroReport, 19(5), 509–513. doi: 10.1097/wnr.0b013e3282f85c01
Olds, J., & Milner, P. (1954). Positive reinforcement produced by electrical stimulation of septal area and other regions of rat brain. Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology, 47(6), 419–427. doi: 10.1037/h0058775