Thursday, February 14, 2008

The Science & Magic of Love—Revisited

Natural opiods get activated, and you think someone made you feel good, but it’s your brain that made you feel good—Jim Pfaus, Concordia University

Love is the poetry of the senses—Honore de Balzac

To love is to receive a glimpse of Heaven—Karen Sunde

In a previous post, entitled the Science & Magic of Love, I explored some of the current scientific thought on the biology and chemistry of “love”. In honor of Valentine’s Day, I revisit my post and augment with some new information by Jeffrey Kluger of Time Magazine, who kicks off his article with the statement, “Breeding is easy, but survival requires romance too.”

In her book, Why We Love: the Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love, the Rutgers anthropologist Helen Fisher, Ph.D., tells us that a biological/chemical cocktail of dopamine, spritzed with norepinephrine—preferably shaken not stirred—is the can’t fail love potion for love. After six years of dedicated research into romantic love, Fisher doggedly pursued, according to Liesl Schillinger of The New York Times, “such gauzy questions as: “who loves? Only humans or the entire animal kingdom? What is love and how is it different from lust? Why does love linger? What makes it leave and how can one recover from its loss? What is the Darwinian justification for romantic attachment and why does nature allow disappointment in love to rankle so painfully that its victims sometimes kill their rivals, or even their former lovers?” Kluger suggests that losing our faculties over a matter like sex doesn’t make sense for a species that evolved in a savanna full of predators. And yet we do. We feel transcendent tenderness toward the person who sparks our interest; we feel sublime when that interest is returned. “People compose poetry, novels, sitcoms for love,” says Fisher. “They live for love, die for love, kill for love. It can be stronger than the drive to stay alive.”

According to Fisher and other scientists, the process of love closely follows that of a chemical addiction. “Dopamine is associated with all addictions,” said Fisher. “It’s related to craving, heightened energy, and motivates us to win a reward.” She goes on to explain that “We all have a sex drive, and this is what gets us out looking for anyone. But it’s in the second stage, the romantic love, where we get elated and euphoric and begin to focus on mating. The third circuit, attachment, evolved so we could learn to tolerate the individual from stage 2 at least long enough to raise a child through infancy.” Heightened dopamine and lowered serotonin accompany the early obsessive part of romantic love (usually one to three years, according to Fisher), followed by a dopamine plateau and integral role of “cuddle drug” oxytocin. In the attachment phase feelings of belongingness, security and “being connected in some way” prevail. Oxytocin is a hormone that controls maternal behavior (e.g., like the uterus contracting during birth and the production of milk). Oxytocin is produced naturally in the brain, in the hypothalamus, and is released when a couple becomes physically intimate. It is stimulated by touch, massage, kissing and the conscious nurturing of one another. It rises dramatically when women and men have an orgasm, producing strong bonding. In women it increases trust and immediately produces feelings of attachment. Oxytocin also increases a man’s sperm count, facilitates sperm transport and strengthens male ejaculation in addition to providing feelings of protectiveness. A couple’s repeated intimate encounters strengthen their bonding.

This is borne out by two very different species of voles. The prairie vole, one of the few animal species (just 3%) to form monogamous relationships mates for life; whereas its cousin, the montane vole mates indiscriminately with new partners. According to scientists, the montane vole lacks a receptor for oxytocin and vasopressin (its related male hormone). Mating for the montane vole, therefore, does not produce bonding.

Schillinger concludes rather cynically that “if, as Fisher states, 90 percent of prairie voles stick with one mate for life because they’re good dopamine producers and have a sprig of DNA that enhances loyalty, and if norepinephrine automatically floods the brain of a ewe who’s on the prowl every time she sees a ram’s face, and those same chemicals burble through the human brain in love, will people one day be able to modify and medicate passions we once regarded as ungovernable? Will not only lust but love be buttressed, cured or even created with a prescription?”

Janice Shaw Crouse, in a compelling article for the Beverly LaHaye Institute, eloquently answers Schillinger’s challenge. A study at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), demonstrated that the production of oxytocin varied among women according to the level of distress and anxiety or the degree of security in their relationships. Crouse goes on to say that women who had fewer negative emotional relationships in their lifetime experienced greater oxytocin production with higher responsiveness; the corollary being that those whose relationships were not grounded in loving, trustworthy, considerate and selfless behavior found it increasingly difficult to bond.

Crouse follows through with a caution that resonates with compelling truth: “sex with the right person [your long-term mate] produces a psychochemical cocktail that can yield absolute, unconditional and uninhibited love for each other (orgasm causes levels of oxytocin to increase 3 to 5 times above normal)…to casually “hook up” is to risk short-circuiting all future relationships. The chemical reaction that takes place during orgasm prepares the body and heart for a relationship. When the relationship does not develop, the person’s bonding ability and ability to trust is undermined.”

Despite the basis for these scientific precepts, the greater force of love in all its facets, from romantic to divine, doesn’t really work within the confines of traditional chemistry, physics or even biology. It is a phenomenon—a quality—that transcends all these and enters the realm of “magic”, of otherly. Love isn’t something you parcel out in finite quantities and are left ultimately with nothing left. Love can’t be calculated, added or subtracted. In fact, it is one of the few things that by giving it away you are left with more. Love is an oxymoron that defies physics just as endosymbiosis, fluctuation theorem (or any form of autopoiesis) defies the second law of thermodynamics. It is one of God’s miracles that we receive and give, like creating life (one of love’s own offspring).

It was Einstein who said that “After a certain high level of technical skill is achieved, science and art tend to coalesce in esthetics, plasticity, and form. The greatest scientists are always artists as well.” Gee…I knew that…I had long ago reached a point in my scientific pursuits where I’d realized that I had burst through the barrier of scientific truth and had returned “home” to a spiritual truth, and ultimately God’s truth.

Love as thou wilt. Happy Valentine’s Day everyone!

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit Visit for more about her writing.


Mad Tomato said...

Shaken or stirred, I want that cocktail! :D

Have a Happy Magical Hearts Day!! :)

Jean-Luc Picard said...

An ideal Valentine post, Nina. Full of potent romance.

sfgirl said...

Nice cocktail, indeed, Mad Tomato! Thanks... My honey and I have a date for tonight to test some of this stuff first hand... :D

Jean-Luc, good friend, I wish you a wonderful Valentine's Day!

Anonymous said...

I think there is a lot of that mix of chemicals in the brain, especially the dopamine stuff. As a serial monogamist throughout my life, I am quite sure I've become addicted to love every time, and the evidence has been the extreme difficulty of breaking up. Those of you who have a loving partner: never never break up. It's the worst thing in the world! O Valentine! O life!

sfgirl said...

ah.... but to never have loved... surely that is worse... As Alfred Tennyson said:
"I hold it true, whate'er befall;
I feel it, when I sorrow most;
'Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all."
Haven't we all been there... so bitter-sweet...

Melanie Faith said...

Good stuff. ^_^

sfgirl said...

Thanks, Mel! And Happy Valentine's Day!