The Chemistry of Love (Part One)

chemistry of love
There is still a lot of controversy about what happens in our bodies when we love, or fall in love, and to what extent the chemical soup of love determines what and how we feel. But there seems to be a consensus emerging. Part one of this two-parter summarizes the chemistry of love, to the extent scientists understand it today. If you’ve been reading my recent articles, you’ll understand why I care about this. I hope you do, too.

What we are learning is that the chemistry of erotic love is different from that of the intellectual, emotional and sensual aspects of love. Erotic love also seems to be quite different in men than in women: in women it is less provoked by visual stimuli, and takes longer to arise in the first place and then longer to be slaked. The chemicals of erotic love are testosterone and estrogen, and their function is to provoke desire and arousal. When we love someone erotically, these chemicals will keep us coming back for a long time. What’s more, erotic love appears to be self-reinforcing and addictive — the more we get, the more we want. Our bodies seemingly don’t build up a resistance to these chemicals’ powerful appeal. There is evidence that pheromones, the subtle chemical signals our bodies emit when we seek erotic companionship, stimulate testosterone and estrogen production powerfully, but erotic desire can occur without them in the presence of visual, imaginative (the mind’s eye) or other sensory stimuli.

Other aspects of love, from the intellectual love of ideas and of imaginings and of learning, to the emotional love of friends and partners and children and nature, to the sensual, aesthetic love of beauty, art and music, tend to me closely interwoven, less ‘separable’ from each other than from erotic love.

This kind of love can be provoked, like erotic love, by visual, imaginative or other sensory stimuli (especially olfactory and tactile), and they can also be provoked by empathetic stimuli — the presence of a helpless child or animal, someone suffering, or the infectious allure of someone extremely happy, passionate, and/or playful. Such love is a consequence of a veritable cocktail of at least four different chemicals being released by the body, in an astonishing number of locations. Each of these chemicals produces a different set of ‘love’ emotions:

  • Phenylethylamine gives us the feeling of unbounded euphoria and energy we feel, especially when we first ‘fall’ in love. The systems are familiar: dancing on air, sleeplessness, and a craving for more of what provoked the feeling in the first place. This appears to be the most addictive ‘love’ drug. Once we get it, we can’t get enough. When we lose it, we go through what can only be called withdrawal. It is possible that post-partum depression is the result of acute withdrawal of this hormone as the body adjusts to the new role of the mother. It also probably accounts for the craving of some people for unlimited amounts of new and varied love, to keep this ‘high’ going. The consequence is often a broken heart when a jilted lover no longer meets the addict’s craving. Phenylethylamine then sets off the body’s production of…
  • Dopamine and neopinephrine give us the less ecstatic feeling of well-being and bliss, that wonderful mellow feeling that all’s right with the world. yet they also give us a feeling of intermittent excitement when in the presence of who or what we love, perhaps to reinforce the connection and to produce more phenylethylamine to resume the intensity of the new love. Dopamine in turn sets off the body’s production of…
  • Oxytocin is often called the ‘cuddling’ hormone — it is what makes us want to touch, caress, embrace and protect the one we love. It also increases the nurturing urge, and lowers our trust threshold, sometimes with disastrous results when we find that trust betrayed. The cuddling and caresses in turn increase the production of phenylethylamine, dopamine and neopinephrine, so the self-reinforcing overdose of these hormones can be overwhelming, transformational.

Alas, nature (and our bodies) won’t allow this state to last too long, lest it interfere with more mundane duties that may accompany love, such as parenting and making a home for those we love. Cruelly, over time, our bodies build up resistance to these four chemicals, and, except for those so addicted they abandon those they love to seek new thrills that start the cocktail over again, we begin to go through a slow withdrawal. We re-become our old selves.

At this stage, to wean us off these ecstatic drugs (some studies suggest that the drug Ecstasy prompts the body’s production of phenylethylamine), the body starts producing more of another group of hormones, endorphins. These drugs instill a sense of contentment, and a strong sense of attachment to what we have and what we love (even if less powerfully than before). This is the mature stage of love, and it has its advantages. It is this drug that prompts us to stay with those we love for a lifetime, or at least until the kids have grown and flown the nest.

Nature, and our bodies, having hooked us with the mind-blowing cocktail, now keep us hooked with a more enduring, low-key, matter-of-fact addictive drug. Testosterone and estrogen add the spice to reinforce that attachment, to keep us connected to the same people instead of wandering. Sometimes, anyway.

That’s all we seem to know so far. But it’s enough to suggest that we can’t help ourselves — love is not something our minds have any control over. That’s both delicious and terrifying, which is perhaps why so much art, literature and music is about love. We sing paeans to it because we simply have no choice. We do what we must.

And when we lose it, like an addict going through withdrawal cold turkey, there is no greater agony.

(part two of this article will present a debate between Dave the Romantic and Dave the Cynic about the nature of love, and whether it is essential to a healthy, meaningful life, or just our body’s way of taking control of our behaviour… or perhaps both)

Category: Human Nature
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2 Responses to The Chemistry of Love (Part One)

  1. Steve Hinton says:

    Love is the radar placed inside every human to lead them right – as they do not come with instruction manuals at birth. the other thing about love is, that life was created, but without it being appreciated it was not complete. So love is the feeling you get when you appreciate life and all it brings – in the way it was meant to be appreciated. So much of your “how to save the world” looks at righting system failures. All systems are inherently non-functional.However, when people are feeling love and feeling good, even the stupidest systems are either made to work or changed without a problem. When you are feeling bad – no system in the world is going to make you do good. So the answer is love. Love is the reason and love is the answer. universal love, not romantic love which is a mere reflection of the gift all are born with but only a few learn to appreciate. I would like to have a business where the offering the product ot the customer feels like an act of love, and the customer buying and using the product an act of love, Now that would be a natural enterprise.

  2. Chaitanya says:

    I wonder if there are any similarities in terms of chemicals released during exercise and meditation. If any readers have comment on this, please respond.Better yet, Dave, i think this question would be worthy of part-3 in this series :)Thanks.

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