Last year I wrote a 2-part article on The Chemistry of Love. It describes (a) the four self-reinforcing chemicals that make us “fall in love” emotionally (phenylethylamine, dopamine, norepinephrine* and oxytocin), (b) the chemicals that produce erotic feelings (testosterone and estrogens), and (c) the “attachment” chemicals that keep us attracted to love partners after the “falling in love” chemicals wear off (endorphins).
For most creatures, including humans, nature cycles us through these chemicals to encourage us to procreate regularly, responsibly, and (to encourage diversity of the gene pool) polyamorously. The cycle lasts approximately four years:
In other words, we are “programmed” by our bodies to fall hopelessly in love approximately every four years, with multiple and diverse partners, and, if that falling in love produces offspring, to hone in on a partner-bond (not necessarily between the parents of the child, which indigenous humans would not be able to identify in any case) until the end of that four-year cycle, and then to break that partner-bond and start over again with a new round of falling in love.
Our bodies do this “programming” to us because this is the most successful formula for creating healthy and enduring communities, in balance with all-life-on-Earth. It has taken them a long time to evolve this formula. Living organisms, humans included (as Stewart & Cohen have explained), are a complicity of the separately-evolved creatures in our bodies organized for their mutual benefit. And our brains, our intelligence, awareness, consciousness and free-will, are nothing more than an evolved, shared, feature-detection system jointly developed to advise these creatures’ actions for their mutual benefit. Our brains, and our minds (the processes that our neurons, senses and motility organs carry out collectively) are their information-processing system, not ‘ours’.
Our bodies self-manage (or, if you prefer, control ‘us’) through two complex networks: nervous (electromagnetic) and endocrine (hormonal). The two networks have co-evolved to deal with different challenges and needs. Both networks are excellent learners. Throughout the body, especially in the brain and digestive system, the two have learned to work together very effectively. As a consequence of mutually-beneficial communication and collaboration, most species have developed cultures — sets of agreed-upon shared beliefs and behaviours.
If you think erotic love is all about sex, you’re mistaken. The term is taken from the god Eros, and he wasn’t (originally) the god of sensual love. He was the god of playful love. This past weekend, as I went for a long walk in the woods in the autumn sunshine, the love I felt for Gaia was pure eroticism. Watching the wild birds soar, feeling the bark of the trees and the wind, running through the leaves and into a strand of forest so thick that no sun reached its floor. I’ve had the same feeling flirting, or playing outside in the rain, or in clever, playful banter with dear friends of both genders. No question in my mind that the rush of testosterone imbues each of these arousing experiences with love and delight. And the best sex (whether with or without a partner) is likewise, I think, joyful, light, unhurried and playful. So much of the sex that is depicted in stories and films strikes me by contrast as desperate, cathartic, escapist, even violent. Not playful, or erotic, at all. Like the difference between a sip of a fine wine and the addict’s quivering injection of enough narcotic to stem the pain and anxiety of withdrawal.
As I teased out the subtlety of erotic love, and realized it was more (and more complex) than I had thought, I began to think about whether intellectual, sensual and aesthetic love might, similarly, be more complex. Can they be teased apart from the emotional love that the potent chemical cocktail I described earlier provokes?
To take an example from public consciousness, I will confess to a certain infatuation with the artistry of both Sarah Polley and Johnny Depp. I find both actors beautiful. I am irresistibly drawn to people who are very intelligent (without being arrogant about it), people who are very talented, and people who are very passionate (in an un-needy, independent way). Both actors strike me as having these qualities, and both have a huge fan base who would probably say they ‘love’ them.
What is the chemistry here? I think the aesthetic love, the love of beauty, is the same, and probably stems from the same chemical stirrings, as the love one feels for one’s favourite music, poetry or other works of art. Being emotionally “in love” certainly intensifies aesthetic appreciation (when it doesn’t completely distract from it), but I believe they are two different types of love with different chemical catalysts.
Intellectual love, likewise, I think, is something apart from these other loves. The spark of imagining, creating, appreciating an idea or argument or learning or having an aha! realization creates a delight that is quite different from that of falling in love or appreciating beauty. It is, I think, a form of pattern creation or pattern recognition that fires the synapses of the brain, and hence might be more a chemistry of the nervous system than the endocrine. Learning brings joy and a chemical reward for the same reason we feel elation when we fall in love or recognize beauty — because our bodies want to reinforce that behaviour for Darwinian, survival advantage. We love learning and ideas because they are good for us.
And finally, I suspect that sensual love, teased apart from the aesthetic, emotional, intellectual and erotic, is also chemically induced and a reward for behaviour our bodies want to reinforce. Pleasant tastes and smells, especially, tickle our ‘taste buds’ but I am sure also provoke a neural message that says “yes, please, more of this”.
No question that, in this chemical soup, the different forms of love are conflated, merge into one in our romantic consciousness, and reinforce each other. But they are, nevertheless, the result of different chemical reactions and can exist in isolation.
The reason for our catastrophic population explosion is simply that (1) we acquired technology that allowed us to keep babies alive without mother’s milk (and hence accelerate the renewed fertility of mothers after childbirth), and (2) we acquired technology that allowed us to kill off our natural predators and diseases, which would in a healthy system kill off enough of us, mostly painlessly, to keep our numbers in balance and cull out the weak. In so doing, we screwed up a million years of effective evolutionary development in a mere thirty thousand years, and as a consequence have precipitated the sixth great extinction event in our planet’s known history, including our own extinction. Oops.
Unfortunately, as our species began to overpopulate and desolate the Earth, we had to evolve a new culture, the stress-responsive, hierarchical, constraining, passive-consumer culture we call ‘civilization’. Without these cultural constraints — this obedience to hierarchy, this managed scarcity, and this becoming-everybody-else conformity — we could not live together under such horrifically crowded, constantly struggling, unhappy circumstances. There is now a war of wills going on inside us — between the will of our body, to do what it has been programmed to do over a million years of constant learning, and the will of our culture, to do what we must do just to survive in our terrible modern and unsustainable world. There is no reconciling the two, which is why we are so ill with the symptoms of this war — chronic diseases caused by chronic modern stress our body is not equipped to cope with, and the mental illness that plagues every creature denied the freedom to be nobody-but-herself.
This is who we are — a joyous complicity of the creatures in our bodies, now wracked with the stress of having to be everybody-else, of having forgotten who we are and where we belong and how we are a part of all-life-on-Earth, connected.
And still we are driven by the beat of that ancient drum to fall in love, anew, every four years a new beginning, a new ecstasy, that bliss, that desire, that spasm of pure joy that eclipses so briefly all the griefand loss and sorrow and anger and shame we feel.
It is all we can do.
* incorrectly spelled as neopinephrine in the earlier articles
Category: Human Nature
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