Jewish World Review Feb. 14, 2006 / 16 Shevat 5766
The chemistry of love
One may wonder: Is love in the air?
For starters, it seems like it's mostly in the brain.
At least that's what Lauren Slater writes in National Geographic magazine in a fascinating February cover piece, simply titled, "Love."
"For the first time, new research has begun to illuminate where love lies in the brain, the particulars of its chemical components ..." According to Slater, "scientists say that the brain chemistry of infatuation is akin to mental illness — which gives new meaning to the term 'madly in love.' "
Anthropologist Helen Fisher has spent years looking for love, only not in bars or with want ads, but with an MRI machine. She and her colleagues found couples who had been wildly in love for about seven months. They put each person into a brain scanner and showed each half of the couple a picture, one "neutral," the other of their beloved.
Watch out. In the latter case, "the parts of the brain linked to reward and pleasure ... lit up." What Fisher found, and what most amazed her, was that the chemical pathways to the part of the brain where love "resided," so to speak, "ignited" a dense spread of receptors for a powerful neurotransmitter known as dopamine, or, better put, the brain released its very own "love potion No. 9."
So then there's a reason why, Slater reports, when you are newly in love, "you can stay up all night, watch the sun rise, run a race, ski fast down a slope ordinarily too steep for your skill ... " And that feeling is wonderful. It's also, as the magazine notes, almost always fleeting.
Physically that rush of love can't be maintained over time. Imagine if it could. What would have happened to civilization? Who would have had time to build it?
One theory is that we simply build up a resistance to the "high" of dopamine. So, then true love goes into a different form. In a way it "settles down," and it's based more on connections — marriage, children, commitments. We finally emerge from our "high" state to see that something exists, must exist, beyond just "us."
I remember, long before I was married, being captivated when I read about this transformation in romantic love as described by writer C.S. Lewis. He talked about it in more than one of his books as a more profound, deep, and satisfying kind of love than the original, if delightful, "thrall."
That is, if we accept that transition with our beloved.
And so the science seems to back up what has been intuitively known for the ages — consider the biblical passage from 1 Corinthians so often read at weddings: "Love is patient, love is kind ... love does not act unbecomingly ... " Bottom line? For love to be lasting and true, at some level it has to be about action and deed, not just feelings.
Yet beautifully, those actions and deeds may produce their own love chemical — and joy — though of a different sort. In contrast to the "high" of dopamine, Slater reveals that oxytocin is a chemical "that promotes bonding and connection." Or the real, long-term deal. Oxytocin is thought to be plentiful in long-term couples with warm, comfortable relationships. It turns out it's released, for starters, "when we hug our children or our long-term spouses" or breast-feed our babies.
(Maybe that's why, in the wake of my divorce, I've told friends that while yes it may be lovely to fall in love again — what I really want is to have been married for 10 years!)
Anyway, back to the "falling in love" part, since we are talking about Valentine's Day. Guys, here's a tip from the piece: If you do something exhilarating and physical on the first date (no, I'm not talking about sex here) chemicals are released that produce something like that dopamine attachment, and are more likely to get you a second and third date. In other words, take her to an amusement park, not dinner, the first time out.
And keep working at it. It seems women are not the ones more easily swept away by romance, chemically induced or otherwise, after all. We seem to be a little more likely to think in terms of making a "choice" to love. One study I read long ago showed that men typically "fall in love" in about three dates, but for women it takes 20.
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