love & lust

Catch that buzz: the chemistry of love

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AsapSCIENCE has once again confirmed something we’d suspected all along: love really is a drug! Brain scans of people in love shows the same activity in the pleasure centers of the brain as those on cocaine. (Leaving one to ponder—are intrepid scientists dragging an fMRI machine out to parties or bringing the party into the lab…?)

Because it lowers the threshold at which the brain’s pleasure centers fire, it’s not just that being in love feels good, it’s that anything else you experience while in love becomes more pleasurable (the proverbial rose-tinted glasses). En plus, nearby pain centers fire less, so you’re less bothered when your boss is a jerk or someone cuts you off in traffic.

The hormone cocktail that nature has devised to propagate the species includes dopamine and norepinephrine, which stimulate arousal and a desire to be with your love interest. Elsewhere in the brain, oxytocin is released to encourage attachment and bonding. Seratonin levels decrease, triggering infatuation. In short, we’re screwed.

While some of the love chemicals, particularly oxytocin, can last for decades, the intense feelings associated with falling in love are thought to have a shelf life of 18 months to three years, according to the work of Dorothy Tennov.

But not to despair—the elation associated with the passionate phase gives way to what anthropologist Helen Fisher (citing the work of psychiatrist Michael Liebowitz) refers to as the attachment stage. In the attachment phase, endorphins are triggered,

giving each the sense of safety, stability, tranquility. Now lovers can talk and eat and sleep in peace.

There are some love junkies for whom the move from passionate love to the stability of a committed relationship is just not worth the trade-off. As philosopher Alain de Botton described it in his book Essays in Love, for such people

to settle for marriage is an unsustainable price—one would rather end things by driving a car over a cliff.

Others would argue that the companionship attained in commitment is not only pleasant and good for the health (married men have been shown to live longer), but that it allows us to focus on other things we enjoy. In Aziz Ansari’s book Modern Romancepsychologist Jonathan Haidt suggests it’s a question of taking a narrative view, in which life is about building a story, rather than hedonic view, in which it’s about maximizing passion. He writes:

Falling in love is the most wonderful thing. But I didn’t get much work done when I was falling in love with my wife…
Some of the greatest joys in life come from nurturing and from what’s called ‘generativity’. People have strong strivings to build something, to do something, to leave something behind.

So as Netflix and chill turns into well, just Netflix…perhaps it helps (a little?) to know that passion wasn’t programmed to last.

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