Friday, July 17, 2009

Nobody Can Explain Love

Years ago when I became interested in science and would attempt to explain all the exciting things we can learn through science, it was not uncommon to get the rejoinder that "science cannot explain everything" (no scientist ever said it could).

The example that was often given to explain this belief was love. "Science will never be able to explain love." Of course, the human race has made this blunder ever since the dawn of science. Every time some says "Science will never be able to . . ." the prediction inevitably fails.

During my early years, grownups tried to convince me that a car could not be built to exceed sixty miles an hour. Even if the technology could pull this stunt off, I was told the human body would not be able to stand the force of such speeds. At the beginning of the twentieth century the idea of putting someone on the moon was laughable. There is a very long list of common bonehead statements like this and they are the result of our limited imagination. Science fiction writers and other novelists, like Ursala Le Guin, have been able to envision future human achievements that seem incredibly far fetched.

"Nobody can explain love." Like so many statements that have put constraints on scientific endeavors, this one is about to be thrown into the historical dustbin. Love is so powerful, so universal, so . . . unexplainable. Its mystery is probed in poetry, novels, movies, daily conversation and now by science.

You are probably already aware of the fancy tools scientists are using to peer into our brains. The human brain may be the most complicated thing in the universe and we are just barely beginning to understand how it works.

A recent study was conducted at State University of New York, Stony Brook. The researchers studied college students who had recently fallen in love (maybe we should call universities and colleges "love factories.") and the effect it was having on their brains. They watched the brain's reaction when these people were shown pictures of their beloved.

Sure enough, as soon as they glanced at the picture, a specific part of their brain lit up like fireworks. The interesting part is that this part of the brain is the same one that gets lit up for cocaine and nicotine users. It gets flooded with the brain chemical dopamine. We know that dopamine flooding is so rewarding that humans will do almost anything to make it happen.

Another love chemical in the brain goes by the tongue twisting name of isphenylethylamine. It is easier to call it PEA which scientists do. PEA is produced by the brain and is a naturally occurring amphetamine. These chemicals work in tandem. Amphetamines cause brain synapses to release this little, tiny spray of dopamine into the brain. There's the buzz — the same high after someone snorts a line of cocaine.

Using cocaine is illegal, smoking cigarettes should be illegal, but love will never be illegal. Many of my clients have told me that they have kicked highly destructive habits after they have fallen in love. A female client was relieved of her depression when she fell in love; a male client stopped having panic attacks when he fell head over heels for the "most beautiful woman" he had ever seen; a teenage client "cured" her bulimia when she met the perfect boy. And so on.

Guess what happened when these relationships ended? The dopamine no longer overrode the other chemicals that were making these people's lives miserable. This may be why some people have so many relationships. After one fails, they need a fix, another love fix. Some people who are not so intensely caught up in the cycle may still complain they just can't live by themselves and are continually on the prowl for someone to fill that emotional/chemical void.

This is not to say that we should have to enjoy being alone. After all, we are social creatures and find comfort and meaning within relationships. However, the people I have known who enjoy their relationships the most are the ones who are comfortable being by themselves.

Dr. Helen Fisher is a researcher in this field who did a similar experiment with a simple revision. She also showed her subjects a picture of another person who was neutral. You can probably guess the first picture released all the chemicals and the second picture did not get the same response. That is what happened.

Another research project wanted to find out what the brain chemistry was like for couples who had been together for many years. They chose couples who had been married for at least twenty years and said they were still deeply in love. Not surprisingly, their brains also showed increased levels of dopamine. However, something else was discovered.

Have you ever heard older couples talk about how love is even better after the initial burst of chemistry begins to subside? When I was younger, my friends and I thought this was laughable. All we knew was the dopamine high. Well, these scientists found that older love birds had another chemical in their brains called oxytocin. This brain chemical is often called the "cuddling chemical" because it helps new mothers make milk and be more capable of bonding with their babies.

Another brain chemical is released when we start experiencing puberty. Do you remember your days of pre-teen infatuation? How could we forget. This state of mind is caused by still another drug called norepinephrine. Because this is the first experience of a love chemical, pre-teens get jolted by this strong drug and think it is The Real Thing. Not that it doesn't feel good. It is just the brain's way of getting young people together to learn the social skills needed for The Real, Real, Thing (dopamine and associates).

There is no question that love is the result a drug. Anyone who has been addicted to this drug and then done something incredibly stupid will not deny its power. Science and human experience know that love is such a powerful experience that it can completely override common sense and rational decision making. When hit with this emotional genie we can go hungry, avoid sleep and cause our friends to shake their heads in disgust and confusion.

So what does this all mean? Has love now been relegated to something so mundane as a drug? Has science taken away the mystery and excitement of falling in love? I don't think so. Knowledge is always better than ignorance. Do astronomers yawn and become bored when looking at a beautiful galaxy or nebula in their telescope? Most certainly not. They go back again and again to gaze at these heavenly wonders. Do English professors stop reading because they have the ability to dissect and discuss the fine points of an author's work? The opposite is true. They have a deeper appreciation of what they are reading. How about musicians? Does their knowledge of the link between music and neurology of the brain lessen their love of music? Not at all. This type of knowledge enhances the music. Even religious people who read the Bible can have a more profound experience of its contents when they begin to understand the insights of professional scholarship from the last two hundred years.

So in summary, this is what love is about: oxytocin makes you want to cuddle and touch; PEA gets your juices and energizes you to lose sleep; dopamine makes you crave more of what you have; and norepinephrine makes you have sweaty palms and a pounding heart when you are near to or even think of that really special person.

Although we have only mentioned a few brain chemicals, Dr. Mary Cochrane at the University of Buffalo says there are many more chemicals involved in romantic love. Her article, Psychologist Says Neurochemical Processes Explain Romantic Attraction explains what those other chemicals are.

Additional Reading:

Fisher, H. (2004). Why we love: The nature and chemistry of romantic love. (Holt Paperbacks)

Regan, P. (2008). The mating game: A primer on love, sex, and marriage. New York: Sage Publications.

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