A BioChemical Approach to Love
Menda Francois 24 February 2009
Prof. Paul Grobestein Bio 202; Web Paper #1
A BioChemical Approach to Love
Growing up I was often taught to love with my “heart” and not my “head”, to accept the fact that love is in fact an irrational emotion and cannot quite be made much sense of. What was not discussed, however, what the role that chemical and biological aspects of love, the impact of one’s hormones on their behavior and the possibility that what is currently perceived as love may simply be the result of a chemical reaction in the brain. In a society where love seems to be the diving topic of discussion in the arts, be it music, poetry, visual art, it may seem startling and perhaps even disturbing to some to think of love in a scientific way. However, using oxytocin and dopamine, neurotransmitters, or chemicals, present within the brain, this paper will provide a brief overview of the chemistry and biology of love.
In the article Is Love Just a Chemical Cocktail? Larry Young, professor of Neuroscience at Emory University, attempts to define love in chemical terms. Young contends that love is a result of chemical reactions within the brain. Asserting that human emotion and behaviors have evolved from those found in the animal kingdom, Young argues that maternal love among a woman and her child is not that different from that of a monkey or chimpanzee. In which case, he rationalizes that maternal love can be understood as a result of the mammalian hormone oxytocin being released into the brain.
As a hormone that also acts as a neurotransmitter, which are “chemicals which relay, amplify and modulate signals between a neuron and another cell,” oxytocin is most well known for its roles in female reproduction: “It is released in large amounts after distension of the cervix and vagina during labor, and after stimulation of the nipples…Recent studies have begun to investigate oxytocin's role in various behaviors, including social recognition, bonding, anxiety, trust, and maternal behavior.”  Called the “hormone of love,” oxytocin is also released by both men and women during orgasm and is believed to play a role in the maintenance of interpersonal relationships. (Doheny 3) In addition, conducting experiments using prairie voles, scientists have deduced that oxytocin plays a role in the increase of trust between partners as well as in the bonding process between these male and female animals, which, like humans “form an intense bond with each other that lasts for a very long time…. So, Professor Young argues that it makes sense that the same sort of molecule might be involved in strengthening the bond between individuals.” (Ghosh 1) Thus, when one takes in consideration oxytocin’s role in inducing emotions specific to love and provoking behaviors peculiar to and necessary for loving relationships, it seems feasible and perhaps logical why love might be considered a result of chemical interaction(s). Meanwhile, while Young looks to the result of chemical, interactions and their inducement of emotions to explain the phenomenon of love, other scientists dissent, arguing that, among others, sociological as well as psychological factors must be considered as well. Young concedes that “nurture” and one’s upbringing, play an important role, but stresses that it such factors are still inextricably linked to one’s changing neurochemistry. Similarly, cultural anthropologist Helen Fisher, PhD, agrees that while non-scientific factors such as socioeconomic status, family background and education also play an important role, they alone cannot account for who one is attracted to or predisposed to loving.
Approaching love from a biological perspective, Fisher asserts that hormones, often differing form one’s own, are key, as individuals are often attracted to those whose chemical makeup differ from their own. Dopamine, a neurochemical made in the brain that is involved in many brain activities, including movement and emotion, is “a brain chemical important for controlling emotion response and the ability to feel pleasure and pain.” (Doheny 2) In examining the biological aspect of love Fisher identifies love as it occurs in and involves three different brain circuits, she categorizes these as “sex drive,” “romantic love” and the “attachment phase” of love, the most powerful of which she is the romantic love phase, in which levels of the chemical dopamine tend to be the highest. It is dopamine which induces the “crazy-in-love” sensation which Young alludes to when he states that "It's just that when we experience these emotions they are so rich we can't imagine that they are just a series of chemical events." (Ghosh 1) What is intriguing about Fisher’s theory is that in the romantic love phase, individuals work to win one another over:“As dopamine levels…increase…it accounts for focused attention on the new partner, motivation to get the reward,” which is, of course, one’s lover’s heart for the best reward is falling in love. Dopamine, a natural endorphin, has also been connected to obsessive-compulsive disorder making love biochemically similar to the disorder itself. “In [the] romantic love phase, Fisher says, lovers [in pursuit of the reward of their lover’s heart] are motivated to win eachother over. Obsessive thinking is part and parcel.” (Doheny 2) According to Fisher, dopamine is more closely associated with the romantic phase of love while oxytocin figures largely in its succeeding phase, attachment.
Studying the function and impact of both neurochecmicals, oxytocin as well dopamine, as on human emotion and behavior aid in rendering a biochemical conceptualization of love, in which the biological as well as chemical aspect are taken into equal consideration. To do so is not to undermine or negate the importance of non-scientific factors such as one’s upbringing, education al and class backgrounds but rather to broaden one’s working definition of love and all of it’s complexities, for I now suspect that there may be some element of truth in the sentiment that one “cannot help but to fall in love” with a particular individual. What’s more, it appears that in light of this information, I may have been loving with my “head” all along.
References Ghosh, Phallab. Is Love Just A Chemical Cocktail? BBC News. http://newsvote.bbc.co.uk/mpapps/pagetools/print/news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/7815095.stm?ad=1
Doheny, Kathleen. Love on the Brain. WebMD. http://www.webmd.com/sex-relationships/modern-love-8/biology-of-love