The science behind lust, attraction, and attachment. And how to keep the romance alive.
Think of the last time you met someone you found attractive. You may have experienced the initial giddiness while you blushed, stammered, said something incredibly foolish. Or you may have graciously turned to walk away only to bump into another person or object right behind you. Think of a time you could not get a person out of your mind: you were anxious, gnawed at the lining of your cheek while you hoped you got one glimpse of that person. Most likely, your heart was thudding in your chest. It’s not surprising that matters of love (and other emotions) were always thought to arise from the heart. In fact, these emotions originate from the brain, which makes the rest of the body go haywire.
According to the anthropologist Dr. Helen Fischer and her team, there are three categories of love: lust, attraction, and attachment. Each of these is marked by its own set of chemicals that control our emotions and the course of action for love.
Lust and romantic love are two different things
Lust or sex drive is evolutionarily driven by human’s primary need to mate and reproduce. Our sex drive is steered by the hypothalamus, which releases hormones to control estrogen and testosterone in the ovaries and testes. While these chemicals are stereotyped as being “female” or “male,” they both play a role in both men and women. It so happens that testosterone increases libido in everyone. But, its effects may be less pronounced because of estrogen in women.
On the other hand, many psychiatrists believe that our romantic love ability is rooted in our infantile experiences with intimacy. As adults, we try to recapture those pure unconflicted feelings of comfort engraved in our brains. According to the psychotherapist and writer, Lauren Slater —
“love is reactive, not proactive, it arches us backward, which may be why a certain person just “feels right.” Or “feels familiar”… He or she has a certain look or smell or sound or touch that activates buried memories.”
So even though we often experience sex drive for our romantic partner, sometimes we don’t. Or maybe we experience lust for our romantic partner and also someone else. The point is, while lust keeps us “looking around,” our desire for romantic love makes us stay attracted to one another.
Love is blind
Passionate love, limerence, or infatuation — call it what you will. Almost all men and women around the world may have experienced love’s ecstasy and anguish.
When we are romantically attracted to a person, we often lose the ability to reason. We idealize our partner, see beyond their flaws, and not get them out of our minds. Some elope. Some commit suicide because of unrequited love. Some may even commit homicide. We begin to feel that our partner is novel and unique. As Kabir Das, a 15th-century poet, said, “The lane of love is narrow. There is room only for one.” Accordingly, scientists have found that we cannot feel infatuation for more than one person at a time.
Dopamine, also called a “chemical messenger,” is a chemical released by the brain. Increased dopamine levels are associated with exposure to a novel environment, heightened attention, motivation, and fierce energy. Its release is driven by “reward behavior” as it puts one in a “feel good” state. Maybe this explains why lovers can talk all night, write poetry, or even cross continents to spend time with each other.
Lauren Slater, in her National Geographic article, “This Thing Called Love” rightly puts it —
“Novelty triggers dopamine in the brain, which can stimulate feelings of attraction. In other words, if your heart flutters in his presence, you might decide it’s not because you’re anxious but because you love him. Carrying this a step further, [researchers] have found that even if you just jog in place and then meet someone, you’re more likely to think they’re attractive. So first dates that involve a nerve-wracking activity, like riding a roller caster, are more likely to lead to second and third dates. That’s a strategy worthy of posting on Match.com. Play some squash. And in times of stress — natural disasters, blackouts, predators on the prowl — lock up tight and hold your partner.”
High levels of dopamine and an associated hormone, norepinephrine, increase heart rate, and make us energetic and euphoric. It is also connected with the loss of appetite and sleeplessness — which means that you can be so “in love” that you cannot eat or sleep.
Plato said, “Love is a serious mental illness.”
Serotonin is another chemical released by our brains. It is sometimes referred to as a “happy chemical,” as it regulates our mood, happiness, and anxiety. It’s the one that antidepressant medications primarily addresses. Scientists have found that people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) have a serotonin imbalance. Research has found that the two groups — people with OCD and people in love — release considerably less serotonin than healthy subjects free of mental illness and romantic love.
So love and OCD may, after all, be similar and hard to tell apart chemically. This finding has led scientists to explains the overpowering infatuation during the beginning stages of romantic love.
The feeling of romantic attraction is like an addiction to another human being. Research has found that the brain regions that light up when drug addicts take cocaine are similar to when we feel attraction. And withdrawal symptoms for addicts are not that different from a love-struck person yearning for someone they cannot see.
Biologically, the reason for romantic love fading away may be found in how our body responds to drug use. As cocaine users describe it — the brain adapts to excessive input of the drug and requires more and more to produce a high.
Love fades, and romance fizzles. Unsurprisingly, many cultures in the world do not believe in selecting a life-long mate based on a fleeting emotion such as love. Maybe it makes sense for love to fade. If a chemically altered state caused by euphoria or romantic love is similar to mental illness, then longterm exposure can lead to severe psychological damage.
If love lasts this rollercoaster of emotions, passionate love changes to “compassionate love.”
Oxytocin is nicknamed “cuddle hormone” or “love hormone.” It is associated with the ability to maintain healthy interpersonal relationships. Its release is heightened when we hug our long-term spouses and children, during childbirth and breastfeeding, and during sex — basically, anything that involves skin-to-skin contact. It promotes a feeling of bonding, calmness, contentment, and security. Vasopressin is associated with long-term monogamous relationships. Oxytocin and Vasopressin overlap with the brain’s “reward system” and deactivate brain regions associated with negative emotions. The difference in behaviors of these two hormones may explain why passionate love fades when attachment grows.
Compassionate love is deep but not as euphoric as the one experienced during the early stages of love. Serotonin levels return to normal. It means that passion is still alive sans the emotional pressure to our brains and bodies. That does not mean that the spark of romance is lost in long-term relationships.
Rekindling the flame
The deaf-blind author and activist Helen Keller said,
“What we have once enjoyed we can never lose. All that we love deeply becomes a part of us.”
In cultures that arrange a long-term marital relationship, spouses express feelings of attachment to one another without experiencing romantic love or sexual desire. According to psychiatry professors, Dr. Jacqueline Olds and Dr. Richard Schwartz, couples married for many decades experience something called the “rustiness phenomenon.” It means that couples get out of the habit of having sex and be incredibly in love.
Brain scans have shown the same intensity of activity in dopamine-rich areas in couples who were married for decades and couples in the early stages of romantic love. This research tells us that it is still possible to be madly in love with someone after decades of marriage. In any long-term relationship that works, oxytocin is believed to be abundant in both partners. Alternatively, in relationships that do not go beyond the attraction phase, couples have not found a way to stimulate and sustain oxytocin production.
There are things one can do to stimulate oxytocin production. According to Dr. Helen Fisher, “Get a massage. Make love. These things trigger oxytocin, and this makes you feel closer to your partner.” You can also trigger oxytocin by holding hands, hugging your loved one, or give them a compliment. And a simple “I love you” will go a long way!
As Rumi, the 13th-century Persian poet said,
Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.
This post was originally published on Medium.com on August 3rd, 2020