Tag Archives: relationships

Chemicals, Neurons and Darwin: How to Create an Irresistible Love Potion.








“It is a risk to love.
What if it doesn’t work out?
Ah, but what if it does?”

–        Peter McWilliams

Let me paint you a picture: an eighteen year old girl crumpled in her SpongeBob Square-Pants pyjamas, icing a spotted fruit-cake, while mascara-ed tears and streams of snot pour down her face.  Sound pathetic? Read on…

My tragic tale of woe starts a couple of summers back, on the day of my grandad’s 80th birthday where I was in my kitchen icing the cake with a broken heart. It may sound clichéd, but I wasn’t feeling this way without warrant. You see, my partner of two and a half years had broken up with me the day before. This was my first, proper, unconsoling, heart-wrenching, no-one-is-ever-going-to-love-me-again break up, and I wasn’t taking it all too well.

My mum finally took over the cake-making duties, and let me go upstairs to cry in the shower. Later that night at the party, I put on a mildly brave face while various family members asked me, “Where’s Adam?” With each polite curiosity, the ever-expanding lump in my throat threatened to burst until finally, a crude uncle called out across the room, “CASS! DID YOU AND YOUR BOYFRIEND SPLIT UP?! BLOODY SHAME, LOVE.” The room went deathly silent. I nodded, put down my plate of sausage rolls and left the party. Thanks a lot, dickhead.

The weeks following the break up were a torment of not being able to physically keep food down while feeling like I was constantly walking down a spiralling staircase, with every footstep becoming harder and harder to take. An array of heart-break songs seemed to stalk me every where I went – I can’t count the number of times I heard Sinead O’ Connor warbling Nothing Compares To You, mixed with my continuous play list of Songs-To-Kill-Yourself-To on my iPod.  Work was absolute torture: not only did I have to still show up – my boss didn’t think that “Adam b-b-broke u-up w-w-with m-m-m-e!” was a decent excuse – but I had to serve customers with a tear stained face from the chair, as I couldn’t even manage to stand up. Well, what was the point in standing if you’re just going to die alone anyway?

Adam and I had been living together before the break up, which meant the entire ordeal felt like what I imagine a divorce must feel like. We had to separate all our CDs and books and talk about the lease of the apartment and selling the furniture, all while I had to come to terms with the fact that my previously foreseen future with Adam was not going to happen and that – worst of all – he didn’t love me anymore. That was the hardest part of the whole thing; having to accept that love doesn’t always last, despite what my rose-tinted glasses were showing me.

The one thing that kept repeating through my mind was a very simple, yet philosophical question: Why? Why did this happen? How can you just stop loving someone? And dammit – What is love?

After a few solid months of cask wine, Colin Firth movies and rubbish re-bound sex, I finally pulled myself out of the standard post break-up blues, looking tired and thinner, but ready to start exploring life, and knowledge again. I joined the world of the Interwebs and stumbled upon an article by the ABC entitled, Love Trap. It begins with,

“We call it love. But the most exhilarating of human emotions is merely nature’s way of keeping the human species alive and reproducing.” (Watson).

Huh. Could the solid theories and practical research of science begin to explain my doomed love life? I kept researching and found that actually, yes it can. New Jersey Anthropologist Dr Helen Fisher says that she divides love into three basic components: the first is lust and the “craving for sexual gratification”, the second is that clichéd, romantic love, “the elation and euphoria of first love” and the third system in the brain is the settling down period or, “that sense of calm and peace and security you could feel with a long-term partner”. (Qtd. in Watson, “Catalyst: Love Trap”). In other words, love is nature’s way of making sure that we reproduce and keep our flawed species surviving.

When Adam and I first started dating, I imagined I looked like a cartoon version of myself: a permanent, dazed smile on my face, love clouds floating around me, tiny birds and forest animals dressing me in the morning – the whole shebang. I can’t necessarily say that I had a powerful surge of lust and craving for sexual gratification at that time, simply because I was a sixteen-year-old virgin and the idea of sex petrified me. In fact, the idea of anything sexual was a total mystery to me, as by then I’d only snogged a couple of spotty males at school, and they weren’t exactly top on my list of throbbing memories.

I did, however, find myself thinking about Adam incessantly. When we weren’t together watching Disney movies and furiously making out, I missed him horribly.  I later found out that when a person is in the early stages of love, an intoxicating chemical called dopamine sprays all over the brain, which triggers a passionate surge of pleasure. (Qtd. in Watson, “Catalyst: Love Trap”). An experiment conducted in Pisa, Italy by psychiatrist Dr. Donatella Marazziti found that couples who were in the early stages of love think about each other during a whopping 85% of their day. Dr. Marazziti analysed blood samples of twenty couples who had been in love for less than six months, and noted that their serotonin levels were abnormally low, and equivalent with the serotonin levels of patients suffering with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Basically, these couples where crazy-obsessed with each other. (Qtd. in Watson. “Catalyst: Love Trap”). Helen Fisher tenderly notes in an article entitled The Drive to Love: The Neural Mechanism for Mate Selection, that;

“Romantic love begins as an individual comes to regard another as special, even unique. The lover then intensely focuses his or her attention on this preferred individual, aggrandizing the beloved’s better traits and overlooking or minimizing his or her flaws.”  (Qtd. in Sternberg and Weis. 88).

I couldn’t agree more. I definitely managed to convince myself that Adam was special and unique and unlike anybody I’d ever met before. I was driven by the idea that he was “the one” or that the starts had aligned and he was my destined, kindred spirit. Young love…what can I say?

During these first gooey stages of love, a cocktail of hormones are released from the limbic system in the brain, and more specifically, the hypothalamus. Adrenaline then kicks in, contributing to awkward reactions such as sweaty glands and an increase in the person’s heart rate. You can thank adrenaline for your creeping blush and flop sweating. Alongside adrenaline come endorphins, oxytocin, dopamine, serotonin and vasopressin. (Chapman, 6) Endorphins are the feel-good chemicals that are released during exercise and – even better – during sex. They are responsible for the sense that everything is right and peaceful in the world, after a mind-blowing orgasm. Thanks! Oxytocin is an incredibly important chemical in this love tonic, as it encourages cuddling between couples and increases pleasure during sex. (Ackerman qtd. in Chapman.). It is also responsible for higher levels of trust and attachment, while a high level of dopamine is responsible for pleasure and motivation. As serotonin levels drop there is an increase in obsessive thinking and aggression (we’ll call that passion, perhaps?) and finally, vasopressin is responsible for higher levels of sexual arousal and attraction. (See fig. 1)

Fig. 1. Your Brain in Love. James W. Lewis, Jen Christiansen; United States; Scientific American; Feb 2011; Web; May 2012.

There is also evidence that shows that women tend to experience much stronger effects of oxytocin than men, as women are lucky enough to have more oestrogen which makes the oxytocin receptors more sensitive. That would certainly explain why I and a lot of women out there find it difficult to separate sex from love. This chemical concoction can surely account for the transcendent feeling of harmony I was feeling when I was younger and helplessly in love. Writer Jeffery Kluger from Time magazine says that when you’re in love,

“…there are the flowers you buy and the poetry you write and the impulsive trip you make to the other side of the world just so you can spend 48 hours in the presence of a lover who’s far away.” (Kulger)

Love can drive you mad – in a romantic sense that is. To quote French writer Françoise Sagan,

“I have loved to the point of madness, that which is called madness, that which to me is the only sensible way to love.”  (Qtd. in Goodreads.com)

This was the kind of literature I was reading when I was in love, which certainly perpetuated the wonderful madness. Little did I know back then that not all love can last. After a solid year or so of being together, Adam and I started settling into a lover’s routine. I was no longer an individual alone, but instead I was a part of a couple and completely reliant on that other person for my own happiness. In the end, I found out the hard way that that kind of reliance isn’t exactly healthy. After I turned eighteen, Adam and I found a cosy two-bedroom one-bathroom unit in Scarborough, just a five-minute walk to the beach. If my friends asked me what I was doing on any given night, I would respond with, “We…” or “Adam and I…” and slowly became part of a very grown up partnership. This part of my story is what Fisher refers to as the “attachment” stage.

She says,

“…attachment is a deep, almost cosmic connection to another human being. [It has] evolved to enable you to tolerate this individual at least long enough to rear a single child as a team.” (Qtd. in “Catalyst: Love Trap”).

This is where everything tends to boil down to Darwin’s theory of evolution and the survival of the species. A biological aspect of the speculation of love is called pheromones, which are chemical signals that are released by the body to attract or fend off potential sex-buddies.  (Chapman, 10) For years it has been known in the scientific community that pheromones exist in animals, but recently some scientists have begun to consider their existence within humans, although there are still debates over the accuracy of these claims. Various tests and research have shown that pheromones can determine whether or not a person is right for you depending on your respective immune systems and human histocompatibility complex or MHC (Kluger) – a cluster of genes that are fundamental to the immune system. (Twyman) Basically, scientists’ have speculated that we subconsciously pick a life partner whose MHC is startlingly opposite to our own, hence if we procreate, our kids would inherit a more diverse MHC and therefore a stronger immune system to scare away any nasty diseases.  (Chapman, 11) Honors student at the University of Rhode Island, Heather M. Chapman says,

“Biologically speaking, love seemingly depends on your MHC.”  (Chapman, 11)

Women’s menstrual cycles are also key players in this dating game. In 2011 the New York Times reported on an experiment conducted at the Florida State University, where over the course of several months, male participants were asked to spend a few minutes assembling a puzzle of Lego blocks with a fellow female student. The 21-year-old student was asked to “keep eye contact and conversation to a minimum. She never used makeup or perfume, kept her hair in a simple ponytail, and always wore jeans and a plain t-shirt.” (Tierney) Later on, each man was asked to rate the woman’s attractiveness, and the research showed that the subjects were more attracted to her when she was ovulating. Another study published in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior showed that strippers who were ovulating earned on average $70 in tips, where as those who weren’t averaged $50 in tips. (Kluger) Although one should always be skeptical with findings such as these, if you consider how a large part of our decision-making is subconscious, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to suggest that this kind of research has revealed more layers of our subconscious.

Evolution plays a much bigger part in all this than you might like to think. As writer Jeffery Kluger from Time magazine bluntly puts it;

“As far as your genes are concerned, your principal job while you’re alive is to conceive offspring, bring them to adulthood and then obligingly die so you don’t consume resources better spent on the young.” (Kluger.)

The study of evolutionary psychology and sociobiological thought has managed to theorize love down to the chemicals that control us, and our roles as baby-makers in this officious Darwinian play. (Oikkonen) The logic asserts that there is an urgent need for organisms to procreate in order to pass down our genes to succeeding generations, and to diversify our gene pool. This, in turn, takes our modern ideals of love rightly off the pedestal we’ve created for it. I’m in no way saying that love isn’t special, but with over 7 billion people in the world, (worldometers.info) you surely can’t be so naïve to believe in sentimental notions such as “soul mates” or “the one”. Hey, I did! But with all those chemicals pulsing around my body – that and the fact that a boy actually liked me – you can’t blame me for being cheesy.

So: girl meets boy, they fall in love, they stay together for a solid two and a half years, and then the love fades and the girl is broken-hearted. I didn’t know this at the time, but the sleep disturbances, the lack of appetite, the intrusive thoughts and the actual physical pain in my heart, all came down to the classic symptoms of grief. (Field) I was grieving for the loss of that person in my life, grieving for the failed relationship, and grieving for the future that was deteriorating before my eyes.

Yes, love is certainly a concoction of chemicals, driving us to mate and pass down our genes, but that doesn’t make it any less special or complicated. It certainly doesn’t explain why people can fall out of love, or why sometimes, people don’t fall in love at all. Just because you know how the pain receptors work in your body, for example, doesn’t make stubbing your toe hurt any less. Science is rational and logical and love just isn’t, and fuck it, we’re a damaged species and love is just part of the brutal human condition.

So, would I go back and do it all again? Of course I would. Having all this knowledge of love and the domineering role of science wouldn’t have stopped me crying my eyes out in the shower while eating a tub of ice cream. Nor would it have stopped me from falling in the first place.

You should never deprive yourself of the magic of love out of fear of getting hurt. Life is too short; so let yourself get carried away.

Tom Robbins wrote,

“Love easily confuses us because it is always in a flux between illusion and substance, between memory and wish, between contentment and need.” (Robbins, 69).

I think that just about sums it up.

Works Cited:

Chapman, Heather. “Love: A Biological, Psychological and Philosophical Study”. Senior Honors Project. University of Rhode Island, (2011):  8-11. Web. May 2012.

Field, Tiffany. “Romantic Breakups, Heartbreak and Bereavement”. Scientific Research: Psychology. (2011) n. pag. Web. May 2012.

Fisher, Helen. “The Drive to Love: The Neural Mechanism for Mate Selection.” The New Psychology of Love. Sternberg, Robert J. and Karen Weis. Eds. London: Yale University Press, 2006. 87. Print.

Kulger, Jeffery. The Science of Romance: Why We Love. Time Magazine. 17 Jan. 2008. Web. May 2012.

Oikkonen, Venla. Mutations of Romance: Evolution, Infidelity and Narrative. Volume 56. Number 3. Project Muse. Fall 2010. Web. May 2012.

Robbins, Tom. Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. New York City: Bantam Books. 1990. Print.

Sagan, Francoise. Goodreads. Web. May 2012.

Tierney, John. The Threatening Scent of Fertile Women. The New York Times. 21 February 2011. Web. May 2012.

Twyman, Richard. The Human Genome. Welcome Trust. 30 July 2003. Web. May 2012.

Watson, Ian. “Catalyst: Love Trap”. Catalyst. ABC. 30th September 2004. Web. May 2012.

Worldometers.info. Web. May 2012.


Filed under Opinion Pieces.