A few years back an article landed in the February 06 issue of National Geographic. It was about the science of love. Taken from the findings of Dr. Helen Fischer, the piece focused on the scientific evidence that surrounds this emotion that has overtaken men and women through the ages. Fischer's research points to the reality that love is primitive. Its purpose is to further the species. Every aspect of "love" serves a function that is rooted in really nothing more than survival of our DNA. We mate to procreate. And rather than the ancient philosophy that tied feelings to our hearts, the evidence shows all this chemistry originates only in the brain.
Additional studies and research have since come out backing the findings, and elaborating on some of the social mores currently engaged in by human beings. While some opt for a mystic approach to finding "the one", the empirical evidence overrides the illusion of destiny and points to a very pragmatic aspect of our species:
Love is a drug.
And like any drug, love alters the chemistry in the brain causing a chain reaction of emotions we seldom can contain. From attraction to detachment, love comes (and goes) in stages.
And yes, love really does start at first sight. This is true for men, who are more apt to rely on visual stimuli, and women, who utilize their larger communication centers to study body language and posture. It really ought not surprise us too much when we trace our own attractions in a lifetime. There are those we are drawn to like magnets and those who repel us in an instant. This is all traced to the chemical reaction we experience when around them.
Attraction is the first stage in any relationship between us. It is how we create friendships, love affairs, and communities. It is what compels us to proceed, sometimes with, sometimes without, reservation into the future stages of relationship. And as with all things, in the area of love, we barter.
We are trained very early on to manipulate others. Toddlers have mastered the art of deception in order to achieve their goals. This doesn't change much as we grow old. And where love is concerned, that ability to manipulate takes us to and through relationships that aren't much different than the tantrums or teasing we used as children. Based primarily on our innate instinct to survive, the brain will do whatever it has to do to stay alive.
Falling in love, bonding with another, ensures an alliance. And our primitive ancestors learned years ago, that alliance is beneficial for survival.
So is feeling good.
And more importantly, so is reproducing our offspring.
Pheromones ensure that we succeed.
They are found all over the place, in all species as a key in mating. Secretions that are sent and received to solidify attraction and propel us like magnets to others. While attraction is not necessarily all about reproducing, and is primarily a function of social community, we need the pheromones to ensure we get as close as we can get. For a variety of reasons.
The word comes from the Greek. It basically means transporting stimulation. Get the picture? It's why bottling musk was such a stellar idea. While pheromones are not exclusive to only sexual encounters, they are necessary when it comes to them. Pheromones signal everything from the female mating season to whether or not it's quality DNA in a man she is mating.
That's the genotype.
Women who sniffed the shirts of smelly men, selected the scents they enjoyed the most. Women ranked highest the men who had a different genotype than theirs, thus pointing to ensuring a joint immune system for strong offspring.
And contrary to what you might think, you have very little control over the way your body will respond and engage when face to face with the secretion of hormones from another. Try as you will, your brain is smart enough to rule your body. It is pheromones that measure whether you attach or retract from another.
Once sight and scent scan the scene, the rest is up to dopamine.
Attraction feeds our brain with dopamine, the brain's "reward hormone". When elevated, we behave more like computers that are programmed to seek and search for more input. Our energy and excitement increases. Hearts skip a beat, so to speak, as the blood flow increases to levels that cause our eyes to flutter and our lips quiver. Thinking about the object of our desire continues to feed the need until we will do just about anything to achieve the reward.
Just looking at a photograph of your beloved will set off receptors in the brain and cause you to feel like you're on cloud nine. Basically, you're high. Bold, daring and brave and willing to take risks you might not normally take. Sound familiar? Love at this stage behaves more like an addiction. With the primary purpose being to get our hands on it.
We will do some crazy things when we're in this stage of love. And we don't even care. Even the most rational, logical individuals will barter common sense and circumstance just to get more. The chemistry compels us. It drives us. It moves us toward the reward. It's all we want to think about, all we want to talk about, all we want, period.
That's the serotonin.
Serotonin levels of those in love match those with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. No wonder it's such a hard habit to break. And if broken, the brain experiences a withdrawal unmatched by many emotions. With memory feeding dopamine to increase, and serotonin missing, heart break acts as the villain. Pain receptors begin to fire as the brain's expectations are no longer met. At this stage of love, or lost love, grief and depression set in as indicators that something is broken and needs fixed.
Studies show that love lost is one of the most stress filled occurrences a human can experience. Research puts an end to the withdrawal at approximately ten weeks. This process is sped up or slowed down based on how one's brain replays the memory. Because the brain views memory as actual experience, experts suggest focusing on negatives is the quickest way to retrain the brain's needs. Anger appears to be the best remedy for the grief and the fastest way to healing. This is because anger is the secondary emotion utilized by the brain to protect from threat and shield the body.
Depending on how much attraction has progressed to bonding, this process fluctuates. The more connected we are to another through bonding, the harder the hit. But our brains are wired to take this risk. Because bonding is the best way to ensure lasting relationship. And again, relationship is rooted in the time tested theory that community trumps lonely. Survival requires relationship. Two are better than one. Especially when it comes to adaptation and being certain our DNA lives on.
Oxytocin has been called the "love hormone" with good reason. It is this hormone that overtakes dopamine and levels out serotonin in order to achieve a healthy balance. It is this hormone that sticks. It is fostered through touch and display of emotion. It is found in high levels after child birth, sexual intercourse, and intimate moments. Oxytocin drives commitment.
Women by default have more oxytocin than men. Probably the reason mothers and sisters and girl friends are more apt to nurture and stand by their men. But men get a full wave of this hormone during sex, along with vasopressin. Contrary to the notion, and whether they are aware of it or not, men are driven to sexual activity in order to achieve this life saving chemistry. Oxytocin and vasopressin rewire a man in an instant. This, along with the surge of prolactin, is why they are usually more apt to pass out and rest after sex. These hormones are released in abundance during orgasm, and quite frankly, their system simply isn't used to it. Repeated sexual experiences with one partner increases the oxtocin levels in both. In fact, oxytocin will increase with even the thought of touching a partner you have extensive sexual history with. (Makes the memory of the old flame make more sense doesn't it)?
And in case you didn't know, you can't achieve orgasm without it.
Oxytocin produces the sensation of contentment, trust, and calm. It reduces anxiety and feeds the body with peace. It's the gateway to vulnerability. It is this hormone that is responsible for the cycle of commitment, turning two into "we". It is this hormone where love reaches the stage of exclusivity and tells the brain that an alliance has been forged that brings long term security. Oxytocin is the stage of love when attraction has become stability.
It is here, where attraction becomes intimacy.
From eye to eye to hand to hand to lip to lip, intimacy takes its hold on an individual through the shared experience. Even strangers asked to sit and stare and share secrets will become connected. Without any further stimuli needed, individuals can forge relationship on the high of intimate.
Studies from over a decade ago showed that the touch of another's hair was considered a far more intimate expression than even a kiss. This is due to the culture and time we're living in. We rank our intimacy based on the space thats invaded. We measure these moments according to the doors we open and how far we let another walk through them. And our brains are constantly setting parameters based on exposure. The greater the trust we have in relationship, the greater the trust we will give.
And this is when intimate become commitment.
Research has shown that couples maintain long term relationships for a variety of reasons. The common denominator seems to be the level of interaction they have with one another. It isn't the institution of marriage that necessarily equates to sustainability, but rather the co habitation and commitment the partners have made to the union.
It's the brain making a decision.
Yet still, while many of the initial decisions made during attraction are involuntary, even the movement from emotion to devotion is somewhat out of our cognitive reach. It appears the length of the vasopressin receptor genes have a lot to do with our sustainability. It's that prarie vole study. There are some in a species that appear to be predisposed to monogamy.
And there are advantages and disadvantages in the species for both. Studies do suggest that those in long term commitments live longer and prosper in some very beneficial matters. But one could also argue that benefit is relative, depending on the personal goals set by an individual. Those who engage in relationship temporarily, or based only on initial feelings, may struggle through the dopamine drop and trade long lasting for new and exciting. And some find companionship in any form an easier process for them personally than focusing on a risk that might pay out only lonely.
We know that when attraction leads to sex, there are even more factors to consider. Attraction and sex are tied to each other. There really doesn't exist a one night stand. Sperm works hard to ensure that. Literally marking the territory of a woman, making the environment even more hostile for another man.
The hormones released during sex flood men and women with levels unmatched by other activities mutually engaged in. While it is a common theme to participate in casual sex, the research backs more pleasure is had when there is a consistent chemistry building exponentially between a man and woman. The bonding that occurs during sexual activity acts like a glue, and any increase or decrease in the activity impacts each partner, relative to their participation and/or monogamy.
While we may not realize the necessity of the attachment that stems from attraction, it is prevalent. We know that we pick our partners initially with offspring in mind, even if we aren't fully aware of why. Women seek out rugged testosterone filled men. Men note the curves and hip ratio is factored in. Romance takes its roots in reproduction. Our brains utilize every resource they have from sight to touch to scent to guarantee getting what it wants and needs.
And if the science wasn't enough, how about the stats? Men choose their mates when they are ready to marry. Find Mr. Right at the wrong time, and no amount of leg will get him walking down the aisle. "Why Men Marry Some Women And Not Others", by John Molloy tells the tale of how men choose their wives and when they usually do. It also helps answer for some scorned lovers the age-old question "why?".Men and women simply approach the dance differently. There are very real differences in how the brains of men and women process input. And very real differences in how emotions and hormones direct each step either toward or away from each other.
Recent studies show that men are actually wired to be more emotional than women. It is the expression of the emotion that is different. It is the suppression of the emotion that is different. Men are also more apt to be driven to sexual encounters than women for reasons most don't know or understand. The cliche that men just want to make it into bed holds true, but for good use. It really does solidify their experience as a connected, emotional man. Feeding them with hormones and an ability to express themselves in ways they normally can't.
And we know when it comes to actually producing offspring, new hormones overtake both parents. Is it really a wonder there is a decrease in sex? Women are filled with so many feel good hormones just from the sniff of a baby's bottom, they don't need to be driven to the high from their man. And men get doses of prolactin just by being near her when she's pregnant.
Prolactin, like oxytocin, is a positive feedback hormone. That means the cause is also the effect. The more your brain gives, the more your brain gets. It's the counter to the dopamine rush that produces the wave of relax. It's the gratification after sex. The hormone that makes the hunt and the risk and attraction and arousal and every other chemical component worth it. Because prolactin provides the brain with satisfaction.
And satisfaction is the primary goal of all of it.
All this really shouldn't be surprising. Our brains have equipped our bodies with the necessary tools to ensure the best chance to thrive. Using pleasure to drive and pain to keep us alive, it shouldn't be a wonder that "love" is simply a process by which we engage to survive. And so, we are wired with impulses that strives to move our DNA forward.
We call it puppy love or marital bliss. We say we are hopeless romantics. We chalk most of the moments up to mystic. And we write the odes and call on muses and take the risks. Not aware of all these chemical reactions and responses that we are wired with.
We just know we've been swept off our feet, hoping to land on something solid. And that's how it's been through the ages. Because love is what it is. And it's worth it.