December 18, 2009
Love, as with many aspects of life, can mean different things to different people. We experience and share the nurturing, unconditional love from our parents and family, friendship and companionship from our friends, and the allure and passion from our significant other. However, ultimately I personally think love in its true form is a Love that is patient, and kind. A love that does not envy, does not boast, and is not proud. Love that is not rude, not self-seeking, not easily angered, keeps no record of wrongs. A Love that does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. A love that always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres (1 Corinthians 130). Although this may be idealistic in nature-afterall humans are far from perfect- scientists and humanists agree that all relationships, “whether they are those of parents with their children, spouses with their partners, or workers with their colleagues, rely on an ability to create and maintain social ties.” (Arges 123). But what happens when we fail, as we often do, to meet these standards, moreover, what happens when we seek people who do not embody these qualities and bring out these qualities in us? Moreover, to what extent do biological predispositions as opposed to environmental factors influence an individual’s ability to “love” and “be loved?” Why are we driven to certain people over others and how could failedrelationships is a result of us pursuing the very factors that drive our inclinations?
As one can imagine, defects can be disabling, and become apparent as disorders such as autism and schizophrenia-and, indeed as the serious depression that can result from rejection in love. Those who have Obsessive Love Disorder, for example are unable to establish normal, healthy relationships, and instead become attracted to and fixated on unavailable and emotionally inaccessible partners, many of which do not reciprocate the same feelings. What happens to these people who are not able to experience love in its “true” form? As I probe explanations to such a phenomenon, I uncover aspects of science and biology that can help better understand these questions, but also uncover questions that science alone cannot answer.
For me, and I think for a lot of us, we all want to know why? What makes us go so loony over love? Why would we bother with this elaborate exercise in “fan dances and flirtations, winking and signaling”, joy and sorrow, moreover why would some of us shy away from love, and arguably choose to be miserable? As John Bancroft, director of the Kinsey Institute admits, “We have only a very limited understanding of what romance is in a scientific sense”, but that limited understanding is expanding. The more scientists look, the more they’re able to tease romance apart into its individual strands-the visual, the auditory, olfactory, tactile, neurochemical processes that make it possible.
First of all, humans, like animals have a reward system, which allows us to do what we ought to do. Without it, we may forget to eat, drink, and have sex-this can be disastrous. We continue to do these things because it makes feel good. We feel good because of the release of a chemical called dopamine into the brain. Similarly, when male rats have sex it makes them feel better because of the chemical dopamine. They learn that sex is enjoyable, and as a result seeks out more of it. Unlike humans however, rats do not associate sex with a particular female. Humans have chemicals such as vasopressin and oxytocin that are responsible for picking out the “salient features used to identify individuals”. For animals such as voles, the salient feature is odor. They recognize each other by smell. In the Journal of comparative Neurology, Dr. Young and his colleagues argue that prairie voles become addicted to each other through a process of sexual imprinting mediated by odor. Furthermore, they suggest that the reward mechanism involved in this addiction has probably evolved in a similar way in other monogamous animals, humans included, to regulate pair-bonding in them as well.
Although research indicates that sex stimulates the release of vasopressin and oxytocin in people, as well as voles, the role of these hormones in the human brain is not yet well understood. While it is unlikely that people have a mental, smell-based map of their partners in the way that voles do, there are strong hints that the hormone pair have something to reveal about the nature of human love: among those of Man’s fellow primates that have been studied, monogamous marmosets have higher levels of vasopressin bound in the reward centers of their brains than do non-monogamous rhesus macaques. Other approaches shed light on this question as well. In 2000, Andreas Barles and Semir Zeki of University College, London, located the areas of the brain activated by romantic love. They looked at the patterns of brain activity with students who said they were madly in love. There research revealed that the brain areas active in love are different from the areas activated in other emotional states, such as fear and anger. Parts of the brain that are love-bitten include the one responsible for gut feelings, and the ones which generate the euphoria induced by drugs such as cocaine. So the brains of people deeply in love do not look like those of people experiencing strong emotions, but instead like those of people snorting coke. ‘Love in other words, uses the neural mechanisms that are activated during the process of addiction. It is thus reasonable to conclude that animals which form strong social bonds do so because of the location of their receptors for vasopressin and oxytocin. The more receptors located in regions associated with reward, the more rewarding social interactions become.
Stephen Phelps, a researcher at Emory discovered that the variation in the distribution of vasopressin receptors in voles contributes to an individual differences in social behavior (for example some voles will be more faithful than others) This has lead researchers to believe that there may be a correlation between people’s fidelity with their gene sequence, and promoter sequence. What I found most interesting is learning about the various forms of love. According to Helen Fisher, a researcher at Rutgers University, love comes in three “flavors”: lust, romantic love, and long-term attachment. There are various forms of love, such as lust, attraction(romantic or obsessive love)
Lust, involves a craving for sex. According to Jim Pfaus, a psychologist at Comcordia University, in Montreal, says the aftermath of lustful sex is similar to the state induced by taking opiates. A heady mix of chemical changes occurs including increases in the levels of serotonin, oxytocin, vasopressin and endogenous opiods. This may serve many functions, to relax the body, induce pleasure and satiety, and perhaps induce bonding to the very features that one has just experienced all this with”. This is evident in relationships in which a male or female consistently seeks different partners, sometimes even multiple at a time, only to discard them as time goes on.
Attraction, or the state of being in love(what is sometimes known as romantic or obsessive love), is a refinement of mere lust that allows people to home in on a particular mate. This state is characterized by feelings of exhilaration, and intrusive, obsessive thoughts about the object of one’s affection. Some researchers suggest this mental state might share neurochemical characteristics with the manic phase of manic depression. According to one doctor, the actual behavioral patterns of those in love-such as attempting to evoke reciprocal responses in one’s loved one-resemble obsessive compulsive disorder(OCD). “Obsessive lovers” believe that only the person they fixate on can make them feel happy and fulfilled. So thus, it makes sense that they are more likely to having one partner at a time, probably seek less partners than those who are “lustful”. If it appears that they are up against a wall, it is even more daunting for these individuals especially since treatment may or may not be effective.
According to Dr. Fisher, it might “be possible to inhibit feelings of romantic love, but only at its early stages”, OCD is characterized by low levels of serotonin, and antidepressants such as Prozac may keep serotonin in the brain for longer, and inhibit a certain level of romantic feelings, but once “romantic love” begins in earnest, it is one of the strongest drives on Earth”. Dr. Fisher claims that it is more powerful than hunger, and a little serotonin is not enough to stifle it. This can have horrible implications for the individual. For one thing, the individual is suffering from the addictive process of being attached to someone in an unhealthy, dependent manner. Worse still what if the person this individual was “addicted” to was someone who was not healthy and did not embody characteristics such as loyalty, faithfulness, self-control, etc? What if the manic depression symptoms as well as obsessive compulsive symptoms, cause the individual to become obsessed with characters that are toxic and damaging?
What if we are pre-disposed to feelings such as exhilaration, and intrusive, obsessive thoughts, and because of this pre-disposition we date the same “type” of partner over and over again. And what if we are merely addicted to partners who exacerbate who fuel our mental states, in other words if some of us are pre-disposed to “manic depression”, what if we continually seek partners who serve as a negative influence on our lives. It becomes increasingly clear that environmental factors have an important effect on relationships. Obsessive Love Disorder is often a result of having experienced a very stressful, overwhelming and painful situation. Other external influences such as a crazy family, school, or work environment ma y cause an over-anxious or emotionally injured person to escape these painful realities by retreating to a safer, although sometimes uncomfortable, world of fantasy and obsessions. According to Paul Hanning, “this obsessive world is created by an intense deprivation of wish and need fulfillment. Because basic needs such as love, nurture, and acceptance have been denied, the injured person “trips” to the world of obsessions to avoid feeling internal anxiety”.
The development of an obsessional disorder is similar to the development of other types of disorders. Generally speaking, when an infant is denied the presence of a significant other –such as a parent-the baby will innately scream and cry out in order to communicate with a parent. This painful screaming is the infant’s primal attempt at getting a parent to respond to a real their cry: “Mama, I need”. If the parent does not respond, the child will go into extreme shock, as every cell in the body aches for love and attention. Unfortunately, the child will eventually become emotionally dead, stops feeling and become crazy. Thus begins the escape and retreat into the psyche and the development of a mental disorder. According to Hanning, “Continual parental unresponsiveness will cause a systematic and methodical closing down and denial of the child’s real self. The child is left wondering why someone doesn’t come to relieve the pain”.
In order to survive, an individual will be more likely to retreat into an unreal, unfeeling world of obsessive love fantasies. It is from this “fantasy world” that as an adult, the individual will obsess about seducing a sought after lover, who is misperceived as being able to provide the nurture and love that were needed in infancy. The adult longs to return to that place of exclusive intimacy and union with the mother, and experiences intense pain when being cast out and separated from the world of perfect union.
Many “obsessional” people suffer difficulties that stem from birth trauma, which creates a strong unconscious need to cling and hang onto mother, many possess a powerful desire to cling to a desired lover. However, they suppress this desire by cutting off sexual feelings from the emotions of love and need. Obsessives experience a double blind situation: separation is very painful, while contact is very frightening.
The final stage of love, long-term attachment, allows parents to co-operate in raising children. This state, says Dr. Fisher, is characterized by feelings of calm, security, social comfort and emotional union. Because they are independent, these three systems can work simultaneously-with dangerous results. As Dr. Fisher explains, “you can feel deep attachment for a long-term spouse, while you feel romantic love for someone else, while you feel the sex drive in situations unrelated to either partner.” This independence means it is possible to love more than one person at a time, a situation that leads to jealousy, adultery, and divorce.
I think our biggest enemy oftentimes, is ignorance, or our lack of knowledge about our own tendencies, weaknesses, strengths, and shortcomings. It is one thing to fail in our efforts to resist temptation, but I think it is even more detrimental if we do not know our own weaknesses in the first place. Who and how we love in the past are important determinants of our capacity to fall in love in the future. However at the same, since behaviors are learned, it may be difficult for some individuals to break free from habits that have held them hostage since childhood. Individuals who suffer from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, individuals who have known trauma all their life, internalize terror and retreats to the fantasy world of obsessions and idealizations, since they cannot escape from painful environments and situations, whether past or present. The world for this individual, is one of constant tension, a “living hell” without relief or physical escape, where fantasy becomes the only option. Although this is a destructive and debilitating disorder, individuals may not realize they even suffer from a disorder, prolonging treatment that is difficult to treat in the first place. Although it can not be concluded that humans are “born” with a particular kind of “soul mate” wired into their desires, many researchers believe that humans develop a “love map” over time- a bluepring that contains the things that they have learned to be attractive. Romance may be nothing more than a form of desire to perpetuate the species, but nothing could convince a person in love that there isn't something more at work--and the fact is, none of us would want to be convinced. That's a nut science may never fully crack.
1. Kluger, Jeffery. The Science Of Romance: Why We Love. 2008, Janurary 17. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1704672-4,00.html
2. Pasternak, Charles . The Science Of Love. 2001, January 6. http://www.firstscience.com/SITE/ARTICLES/love.asp
3. Your Amazing Brain. 14, December 2009 <http://www.youramazingbrain.org/lovesex/sciencelove.htm>