Your Brain on Love | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Your Brain on Love

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The state of being "in love," my therapist told me, is pretty close to insanity. A Jungian, she said that she would not take new patients who were in love; they were unlikely to make any progress. Now, she wasn't referring to the deep love and affection you have for your long-term partner or your mother. She's talking about the all-consuming, heart-pounding, wide-eyed stuff you've experienced during those first days of a new love—being madly in love—the substance of romantic poetry.

Researchers have proven that changes occur in your brain during courtship and bonding. The changes are necessary for survival of our species, say the anthropologists and evolutionary psychologists; because women don't have obvious signs of ovulation, the necessary precursor for mating in most species, "falling in love" is our way of ensuring progeny—so they say.

There are three phases to the human mating game, according to Dr. Helen Fisher, Rutgers University professor and author of "Why We Love," and all of them leave us at the mercy of our biochemistry: lust, attraction and bonding. Lust is all about hormones, and there aren't a lot of discriminating specifics about it. Attraction, the phase Fisher associates with new, romantic love, turns certain chemical reactions on high and lowers others. Dopamine and norepinephrine increase, and serotonin decreases.

Affecting the brain's reward center, dopamine is also produced in reaction to cocaine and nicotine; it's what keeps us hooked. Norepinephrine makes our hearts race and our palms sweat; it's normally produced in response to stress. Serotonin is connected to mood, obsessive-compulsive disorder, body temperature—that flush you feel when your beloved walks through the door—and even our sleep. It's the lack of serotonin that can make you a little (or a lot) insane. Dr. Andreas Bartels of the Max-Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics, who has studied the brains of people who are in love, says that several areas of the brain used to make moral judgments go dim during attraction, which may account for the failure of abstinence programs.

Some of us have trouble distinguishing between love and lust, especially if attraction comes with sex. Homo sapiens are one of the few species on the planet who have sex for the pure pleasure of it. More amazing, scientists have determined that the only function of the clitoris is pleasure. (I am woman, hear me moan!) Are we alone in our sexy ways? Not really: Bonobos and chimpanzees do it, as do Dolphins—or about 3 percent of all mammals.

It's the hormones released during orgasm, oxytocin and vasopressin that contribute to bonding and commitment, say the scientists. Oxytocin is also released during childbirth, reinforcing the mother and child relationship, and vasopressin has been directly related to the strength of monogamy—at least in certain rodents.

What is it that attracts us to some people and not to others? Research indicates that subconsciously, we're attracted to people who would make the best babies with us. Without any thought, humans may be attracted to a set of genetic traits that we lack, strengthening the weaker genes in our offspring. In a 1995 study by Claus Wedekind of the University of Bern in Switzerland, woman consistently liked the smell of the men's sweaty t-shirts who had immune systems most different from theirs, although it's not a method I would recommend for finding a mate.

There are two other hot areas of attraction research: pheromones and appearance. Pheromones, odorless chemicals detected by members of the same species, are well documented for insects, rodents and other animals, but less so for us humans. Pheromones come in all kinds of "flavors." One may signal alarm or aggression, while others mark territory or trigger development. Sex pheromones attract mates, and researchers have been trying to isolate the human variety for years. It's theorized that pheromones may be responsible for syncing the menstrual cycles of women in close contact for long periods of time, a well-documented phenomenon.

Appearance is probably more important to men than women, which may account for the shortage of French butler outfits. (Personally, a white shirt, tight jeans and cowboy boots on a healthy male is an aphrodisiac, especially if the dude can dance). What unconsciously attracts men is the ability to bear and rear children—which means wide hips and ample breasts for American men in general. Miss America contest winners—the "perfect" women—have a remarkably consistent measurement ratio between waist and hips: 0.7.

So there you have it—love dissected and rationalized. I know all of this will fly out the window the next time love hits. While you're daydreaming about your beloved and writing schmaltzy poetry, thoughts of hormones and brain activity will be the furthest thing from your mind. Ain't love grand?

Previous Comments

ID
84858
Comment

Appearance is probably more important to men than women, which may account for the shortage of French butler outfits. Isn't that French Maid outfits? Mmmm... French maids.....

Author
pikersam
Date
2007-02-07T17:31:10-06:00
ID
84859
Comment

What is it that attracts us to some people and not to others? Research indicates that subconsciously, we’re attracted to people who would make the best babies with us. Then I have hit the jackpot... my wife rocks! As does Little Dude!

Author
pikersam
Date
2007-02-07T17:33:32-06:00
ID
84860
Comment

Excellent, Ronni. I wonder if men and women agree as to the power and effect of love and sex. I've seen some big disagreement as to this.

Author
Ray Carter
Date
2007-02-08T14:46:44-06:00
ID
84861
Comment

I dunno. This is all interesting stuff, but I have a hard time buying into essentialist-reductionistic explanations of emotions because there is no way of distinguishing correlation from causation. Does everyone subconsciously fall in love based on who they believe will make the best babies with them? Lesbians and gay men sure don't, so clearly inculturation and other developmental factors play some role. Cheers, TH

Author
Tom Head
Date
2007-02-08T14:51:17-06:00
ID
84862
Comment

(Understanding Tom Head, Tip #17: Given the option between an essentialist and a social constructionist explanation, Tom will choose the social constructionist explanation almost every time.)

Author
Tom Head
Date
2007-02-08T14:52:46-06:00
ID
84863
Comment

Tom, Entire books have been written on the subject of love and attraction, and my little treatise barely scratches the surface. All of the "facts" presented are well documented and researched (by folks with impeccable scientific credentials), but I couldn't possibly present the entire scope of knowledge about the subject in 800 words. As such, the article is biased (as I am) towards heterosexual love. If what I wrote inspires you to challenge the research in a meaningful way, or present other points of view, terrific! As for me, I've read a good deal about fundamental differences between men and women, especially from the point of view of communication (natch!), and believe there are real differences between us (beyond the obvious), even if there's a tendency to generalize far too much. It would be pure folly not to admit "nurture" has a hand in our behavior, as does "nature." How much or how little each plays a part is open, as it has been for centuries, to debate. I've had the great good fortune to have had a few grand romances in my life. Each of them changed me, for better or worse, and each of them had their moments of what I consider "insanity," i.e., the total abandonment of reason to emotion. Others may not see insanity in this way, but I tend to be an emotion waiting to happen, and have difficulty thinking clearly when I plumb those depths. That's why I write. Namaste

Author
Ronni_Mott
Date
2007-02-09T12:17:46-06:00
ID
84864
Comment

Ronni, I'm definitely not criticizing the article--just the hard-science view of the scientists therein. This is a serious debate in mind-body philosophy, between reductive physicalists like Daniel Dennett and non-reductive physicalists like David Chalmers, over how much we really know about processes--what can be described as causative, and what can't. The perspective of evolutionary biology is that emotions such as love can be reduced directly to the physical structure of the brain. The perspective of the social sciences tends to be that emotions such as love use the physical reward mechanisms of the brain, but are ultimately socially constructed. My point in bringing up lesbians and gays is that from a pure selfish-gene perspective it makes no sense to be attracted to members of the same sex because you can't breed with them, and I see this as good evidence that attraction is in fact socially constructed. Cheers, TH

Author
Tom Head
Date
2007-02-09T14:06:27-06:00
ID
84865
Comment

I wonder what kind of love it takes for an astronut to array herself with diapers, a bigazz cutting knife, garbage bags, a little knife and peeper spray and drive to Florida? I bet that was dumb love. "What we won't do, do for love. I tried every thing." Bogg Scaggs. I would use some of Ronni's material for a defense.

Author
Ray Carter
Date
2007-02-09T14:39:33-06:00
ID
84866
Comment

I want even mention murder, shooting or cutting for love. We folks who prefer more sanity at the expense of less love if that's how it has to be, don't want anyone who loves that hard. We can't stand that much love. We don't need that much love. We're scared of that much love. If you're crazy, please tell a young fellow or lady so he or she can move along and free you to find someone who loves just like you do.

Author
Ray Carter
Date
2007-02-09T14:57:55-06:00

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