Kiss and Tell

Science can be a real downer. From global warming to mad cow disease, it's a rare scientific breakthrough that makes for heartening talk around the water cooler. Nevertheless, until science proves that cupcakes are good for us, we must take the good news where we can find it -- and that comes most recently from new research on how our brains react to that most unscientific of emotions, love.

Science has clarified how many of our less lovely traits aren't our fault, like depression and PMS. Knowing that your behavior is not a result of mere weakness is an enormous leap into the arms of happiness. And, just in time for Valentine's Day, science is giving us a beautiful, heart-shaped box of information. Who we love, why we love, why we send vomitous emails to our ex's (there really should be a breathalyzer on all computers, shouldn't there?) ... there are reasons for our unreasonable behavior and they lie in our brains.

Helen Fisher, Ph.D offers us a timely bouquet in her new book Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love, (Henry Holt, 2004). If you exhibit the symptoms Dr. Fisher used in one survey, for example, if you dote on your sweetheart, if your emotional well-being depends on them, if you suffer as much as you soar, you're not crazy -- you're a normal person in the grips of love.

But why?

Three words: dopamine, norephinephrine, serotonin. And there are variables that influence them. Fisher and a team of researchers found volunteers who had "just fallen madly in love," and then used an fMRI scan to view the flow of blood throughout the brain, allowing them to conclude which chemicals were active when the subjects viewed photographs of their beloved vs. when they were viewing neutral subject matter.

The VTA, the brain area that produces dopamine, a chemical associated with addiction and the traits lovers show ("focused attention," high energy and "even mania"), were stimulated by the photographs. To Fisher's surprise, much activity also centered in the "reptilian brain," a primitive area part of the brain responsible for "the motivation to acquire awards" (who of us hasn't seen our beloved like a prize?). She even sees love less as an emotion, like sadness, and more as a drive, like hunger, a need built into us for survival.

"Our fMRI experiment on people in love supports this proposition: Romantic love is an addictive drug," Fisher says cites a study showing that many of the brain regions active in lovers were the same as those active in people "who had injected cocaine or opiods."

Norephinephrine produces effects similar to dopamine and Dr. Fisher theorizes that it aids in love but hasn't found a way of testing for it yet. As for serotonin, lowered levels are associated with obsessive-compulsive disorder.

They were also exhibited, in one study Fisher cites, by people in love. "So I think someday we may find that this chemical contributes to romantic ardor, too," Fisher says.

She also describes many ways that chemistry and evolution have gone to work to make us get attracted to and stay attached to our partners for the sake of our genetic survival. In tests, women chose men who had immune systems that "were unlike but compatible with their own," good for producing varied offspring, simply by smelling their sweat (if only Match.com had a scratch and sniff component).

But if our primal instincts are trying to be so helpful why do they wander off track? Whither divorce?

"It's never anything you do. That's how people are. Love fades," an old lady tells Woody Allen in Annie Hall, and Fisher theorizes that even older ladies, and men -- our primitive ancestors -- may have "paired with a mate only long enough to rear a single child through infancy -- about four years," at which point they could have gone on to other mates: Serial monogamy and multiple partners would have increased their genetic chances.

Evolution even has reasons for our romantic misery -- depression alerted our ancestors that something was wrong with us so we could get help and contribute to the group instead of moping around listening to Nina Simone. Also, "mildly depressed people make clearer assessments of themselves and others." Fisher quotes psychologist Jeffrey Zeig who calls this "failure of denial."

Fisher doesn't just leave us sitting there, wise to our chemicals without giving us some ideas of how to handle them. I was especially glad to see this, since I'd recently been seized with an urge, triggered by a photograph (just like in her study), to contact an old flame and to repeatedly tell myself "It's just like Pet Semetary: you can bring them back but they're never the same."

Fisher would have approved. Her advice is like your classic women's magazines tips: Remove all traces of the ex, carry a list of his or her faults in your pocket, "stay busy," particularly with "things that you do well," which will elevate your dopamine levels again. Most gratifyingly, she offers ways to incite the interest of another, which we all know is the best cure. Whether you're happy in love, miserably in love, anticipating love or even regretting you ever heard the L word, Fisher's book might offer you the balm of knowing that you're not crazy; you're thrillingly, heart-breakingly normal.

Happy Valentines Day. Love, Science.

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