What Makes Us “Us”

chemistry of love 2
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:

  • the “falling in love” hormones are secreted at the start of this cycle, and they endure only long enough to maximize the probability of procreation (any longer than that and they would detract from our paying attention to the needs of the community)
  • the erotic hormones are synchronized to the reproductive cycle of the lovers, to maximize the probability of conception
  • as the effect of the “falling in love” hormones naturally wears off, endorphins (opiates) are produced to replace them, as the ecstasy of early love is replaced by the attachment drug, to encourage temporary pair-bonding for the benefit of the young offspring
  • for the normal four-year breast-feeding cycle of the young, the mother produces hormones that prevent pregnancy and increase attachment to the child
  • at the end of the four-year cycle, as the young are weaned and able to walk on their own, the endorphins wear off, and the cycle begins again, with attraction to new and different lovers (this is probably why four years after marriage is when divorce peaks)

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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8 Responses to What Makes Us “Us”

  1. You don’t mention any cultural element Dave. What is considered beautiful in one culture can be seen as ‘ugly’ in another, so why the difference? Could it be that the chemicals are somehow primed by the culture from which they originate, thus encouraging species differentiation?

  2. Daisy Bond says:

    Do you think this matches up with people’s experiences, though?Four years strikes me as incredibly brief, both for being in love and for raising a child together. And especially since you’re including several kinds of love in this “four year cycle” theory (not just sexual/romantic relationships but intellectual love, etc), this doesn’t really mesh with either my own experiences or my observations of others’ relationships. Many people find the dubious task of forging a lifelong monogamous marriage prohibitively difficult if not impossible… But I don’t see people who have relationships that are actually right for them (monogamy if that’s what works, something else if not), and who have the skills and energy to form truly healthy relationships, falling out of love every four years. When it comes to non-sexual kinds of love, that’s even more pronounced.

  3. Daisy Bond says:

    Also: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 weakThat “culling” was sure as hell not painless for the loved ones of someone “weak.” If it were not soul-crushingly heartbreaking to lose, say, one’s young child, we would never have acquired human-life-preserving technology in the first place — those innovations meet a very real need.I agree that our population growth is catastrophic, but I don’t think it makes sense to wax nostalgic for a time when 10% or more of all childbirths resulted in maternal fatality, or a time when almost no one lived past 30 or 40, or when one was very lucky to make it past age 5. Those things are natural, but they also cause incredible suffering. We can greatly reduce them and still live sustainably.

  4. Dave Pollard says:

    Ivor: good point. My sense is that what’s beautiful is initially personal and instinctive and that cultural precepts of beauty and ugliness are then ‘learned’, layered on top.Daisy: Anthropologists say that pre-civilization life was, except for being eaten by predators, long (80 years was not uncommon) and one’s life was much healthier than life today (none of the modern diseases, no tooth decay etc.) Infant/maternal mortality was not high either in pre-civ days perhaps because mothers were healthier and ate better. Of course being eaten by a predator is very hard on surviving loved ones, but I would much sooner face that than a long, drawn out, painful death. I’m not saying we should go back to allowing ourselves to be eaten, on average, at age 40, just that that was how it once was and now that we have eliminated many diseases I don’t think the average quality of life is any better for it — most of those diseases are opportunistic and depend on overcrowding anyway.The 4-year cycle is nature’s emotional/erotic love cycle only — other forms of love probably aren’t subject to it or any cycle. And it is of course possible to fall in love all over again with someone every four years — in fact it’s probably good when that happens, since it keeps the relationship fresh and exciting. And perhaps if you’re not in a new-parent pair-bond it may be that the 4-year cycle doesn’t apply at all. We live so differently from pre-civ humans that it’s probably hard to say. Just saying that a million years of evolved chemistry doesn’t disappear overnight (or in a mere 30,000 years).

  5. eric says:

    Three thoughts.First, here in the U.S., is our 4 year presidential political cycle somehow a mimicry of our biologically-based four year love cycle? A reflection of a biologically-based political metabolic rate?Second, in his essay on Corporate Metabolism, Paco Xander Nathan argues that we are unable to perceive and regulate the minds of our corporations because the cycle of their metabolic rate just slightly exceeds a human lifetime. This strikes me as a parallel to the idea that while a human mind emerges from and belongs to our cells, our cells may not perceive or manage our minds. Similarly, in humans comming together to form corporations, the corporate “mind” has emerged, and “it” “belongs” to us, but we are unable to perceive or manage it.Finally, if the cycle of a human mind is determined by the metabolism of our cells, and the cycle of a corporate mind is determined by the metabolic rate (lifetime) of a human, the mind of Gaia seems to comprehend both the annual cycle of the seasons and the millenial cycles of geological epochs. Is there any comfort for us in that?

  6. Daisy Bond says:

    Okay Dave, good to know — I think I automatically jump to like, 17th Century London when imagining life before our current technologies (like antibiotics), which of course is not nearly far enough.

  7. vera says:

    I am not sure this fits, by my main rumination about what it takes to create a good community focused this weekend on considerate behavior. To explain… I found a new and exciting friend, and then when she was rather inconsiderate (no big thing, but a timewaster for me, and a feeling of being shunted off), anyways, instead of making a quick apology, she went into elaborate explanations, and nothing I said made any difference. No “sorry” anywhere. And I compared it to the way the Amish interact, with excruciating consideration and willingness to take responsibility and to apologize… in our modern world, it seems nobody apologizes anymore. That would imply oldfashioned guilt, and that’s for rubes.I think our ancestors fled villages and small towns because there, transparency and neighborliness was mixed way too much with meanness. Better be anonymous in a big town. And so we’ve inherited these various big town behaviors which, I think, cannot function to build community. The question is, are we willing to rediscover humility and readiness to make amends the old fashioned way, instead of spewing excuses and clever justifications?I myself am guilty of another pattern… I argue way too hard, and sometimes get so frustrated I just pummel the other with sarcasm or ad absurdums. But I have seen that damage relationships as well. The Amish don’t argue at all… which, to me, seems way too bland a way to live, and not functional enough in a certain sense. So I am wondering if there is a pattern out there for arguments that can be hard yet relationship building at the same time.Cheers.

  8. I dunno. My greater problem has been a tendency to find the “excitement phase” tedious and want to move immediately into the comfortable endorphin stage. Maybe all those years of running messed with my brain!

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