You meet someone at a party. You find this person quite attractive and you chat briefly about common interests or friends. Other than this person’s voice and appearance, you know nothing else about your new acquaintance.
But already, you have reached a devastating conclusion. You can’t stop looking – and hoping for some sign, some signal – for the rest of the evening.
What is love, anyway? What happens when you fall in love? Our cynical times have rendered these questions so cheesy, so relentlessly tacky, they are hard to ask with a straight face.
For much of human history, we’ve relied on stories to explain the myriad complexities involved: tales of gods, princes and queens, monsters, and fantastic undertakings.
People have penned countless poems and plays about love, too: how it shifts and morphs, transforms as lovers grow old together.
Over time, scientists have stepped in to explain in more rational terms what we once thought to be magical and mythic.
Helen Fisher has been one such reasoned voice. A biological anthropologist she been studying ‘love’ for more than 20 years.
The vivacious 75-year-old is a senior research fellow at the Kinsey Institute and a member of the Center for Human Evolutionary Studies at Rutgers University.
She is among the most referenced scholars in the love research community.
The biological pathways of love…
Fisher has devoted much of her career to discovering the biological pathways of love and its attendant intricacies, including lust, mate choice, and obsession.
Subsequently, one of her central pursuits over the past 20 years has been to investigate love with the aid of an MRI machine. In 2004, she published her book, Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love.
She has since published several more books that present her groundbreaking research.
“Romantic love, at its best, is a wonderful addiction,” she said in an interview for Elsevier in 2014. “At its worst it leads to depression, suicide and even murder.”
In times past, romantic love was often viewed as something shadowy and sinister. There was no escaping the physical dissolution and desperation that haunts a love-sick person, who is now destined to roam terrains of unimaginable terror and sadness.
Some traditional Arab cultures believed that when you fall in love, the object of your desire steals your liver. The ancient Chinese told their children that love robs the body of the heart.
These notions partly explain why, for many ancient societies around the world, a lifelong partnership was simply too important to be left up to love.
Hence, marriage was a business contract that parents and warlords arranged for their children. Royalty used such arrangements to obtain lands, create kingdoms, armies, and lasting inheritances on which their heirs could build and thrive.
Certainly, people in love could not be trusted with these kinds of strategic considerations for themselves.
But what was behind this rather bleak outlook on love? How could something that feels so wonderfully right as a smile from across a room, be the object of so much distrust and disdain?
Freud would have blamed the unrequited wish to bed one’s mother if you’re a man – or your father, if you’re a woman.
Jung would have pointed to something that might have been just as disturbing in the collective unconscious.
Fisher suggests that it may all boil down to how our brains react to dopamine. This neurotransmitter is the central component of the brain’s reward system – the network that gives the lover focus, energy, motivation, a craving for the beloved and – let’s be blunt, sex, sex and more sex!
Is love the strongest drug of all?
“In fact, our brain scanning studies show that when a person is in love, they exhibit activity in the same brain regions that become active when one is addicted to cocaine and other drugs,” says Fisher.
But love is apparently far more potent than any drug a junkie might buy off the streets. Unlike substance addiction, just about anyone is vulnerable to romantic love. And when a fix is withheld, even the most pragmatic lover goes into fits of maddening withdrawal.
Fisher says that romantic love is “really a drive – a powerful, primordial, primitive drive to attain life’s ultimate prize.” That is, to win a beloved person’s affections.
Other research supports her conclusions. Donatella Marazziti is recognized globally as an expert in the neurobiology and the treatment of different psychiatric disorders.
Having been in love herself, Marazitti, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Pisa, has explored the chemical similarities between love and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
In one early study, Marazitti and her colleagues compared serotonin levels among lovers, a group suffering from OCD, and a control group free of passion or mental illness.
The results of the team’s research show that serotonin levels in the blood of lovers and obsessive people were about 40 percent lower than normal subjects. In short, love and madness may very well share similar chemical profiles.
Consequently, frustration in love can result in intense, almost insane anguish.
Is heartache real?
In fact, Fisher associates what we know as heartache with the anterior insula, which is the part of our brain that regulates physical pain.
Scientists now know this part to be the same pain center in the brain connected to emotional pain.
In the aftermath of a breakup, for instance, it’s normal for the brain to generate thoughts of a former partner at unexpected moments.
These disturbing flashbacks can reopen wounds and reactivate heartache, throwing an aggrieved lover back into painful withdrawal.
“If you are sexually attracted to a person you met at a party and are rejected, you don’t tend to slip into a clinical depression or kill yourself,” says Fisher. “But if you are rejected by your boyfriend, girlfriend or spouse, it has a huge impact.”
Why, then, do we insist on falling in love in exactly those crazy and dangerous ways that our ancestors warned us against? Isn’t the wiser course simply to avoid – or abandon – this treacherous vice altogether and perhaps be the happier for it?
Fisher doesn’t suggest we give up on love at all. Merely, that we dispense with the romantic idea that a perfect being exists who can solve all our problems for us and consistently satisfy our yearnings.
Every viable lover on the planet is certain to frustrate, anger, irritate, madden, and disappoint us. We will – without any nastiness in our hearts – do the same to them given enough time.
This means that, just like drug addicts, there can be no end to our sense of emptiness and yearning for ideal love. This is a truth that is embedded into the chemistry and wiring of human life.
Once we learn to accept this as fact, we can perhaps learn to live as happily as we can with the awkward compromises of life with another person. This includes the disenchantments of sex and the lack of complete transparency.
Choosing who we marry is therefore often simply a case of finding which variety of disillusionment we are most likely to endure with the least distress.
Strangely enough, people who are ‘madly’ in love will tell you that it isn’t such a bad thing, however miserable it might sound.
“For thousands of years, our farming forbearers were obliged to marry to please their extended family, their community and God,” Fisher says. “I believe that today, people are getting married for the right reasons: to make themselves happier.”
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