“What we call ‘love’ is really a variety of hormones and neurotransmitters swishing around our body. These chemicals induce behaviours and stimulate strong emotional reactions.” —Sara Pascoe, Animal
Love is sometimes characterized as otherwordly, something that transcends the physical and cannot be “explained away” by science. Actually, the feeling of love and the behaviors it drives can be explained by a variety of neurological, chemical, evolutionary, and cultural functions. But don’t think that this means that love isn’t “real” or that it’s not important. In fact, the science behind love actually strengthens love’s value. Below, we’ll look at just a couple of the scientific explanations for love.
Love on the Brain
In comedian-neurologist Dean Burnett’s excellent book Idiot Brain: What Your Head Is Really Up to, he talks about studies done by Andreas Bartels and Semir Zeki in which individuals who describe themselves as being in love are shown images of their romantic partners while their brains are being monitored. Burnett summarizes the effects:
“…there is raised activity in a network of brain regions including the medial insula, anterior cingulate cortex, caudate nucleus and putamen. There was also lower activity in the posterior cingulate gyrus and in the amygdala. The posterior cingulate gyrus is often associated with painful emotion perception, so it makes sense that your loved one’s presence would shut this down a bit.
“The amygdala processes emotions and memory, but often for negative things such as fear and anger, so again it makes sense that it’s not so active now; people in committed relationships can often seem more relaxed and less bothered about day-to-day annoyances, regularly coming across as ‘smug’ to the independent observer.
“There’s also diminished activity in regions including the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for logic and rational decision-making.”
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So there you have it: Ever looked back at a past relationship and wondered why you did things that you must have known were stupid? Maybe it was your prefrontal cortex dimming. But as ever, there’s more than one explanation. Maybe instead, it’s…
There are several principal chemicals involved in falling and being in love, and they can take effect at different times. Oxytocin, for example, may appear a lot early on when falling it love. It makes you feel blissful, which you may think is a good thing, and it is, but it can also impair your judgment. Sara Pascoe, in her book on the science of love, sex and pregnancy, Animal: The Autobiography of a Female Body, says that Oxytocin is “why we behave foolishly when we are falling in love…. You might ignore the odd warning sign of bad behavior; it won’t seem so important that he stole from your purse or made a pass at your sister. But as the relationship goes on, those early hormones recede and it can feel like waking up to reality.”
That isn’t to imply that Oxytocin is evil. Without it, we might have fewer births because this is the chemical that makes a mother forget how horrendously painful childbirth is. Maybe without it, a mother wouldn’t want to go through with a second pregnancy. It’s also instrumental in pair bonding. It is, Pascoe says, “what bonds mothers to their babies after birth and via lactation and it is a vital part of romantic attachment.”
You can even control, to some degree, releasing Oxytocin into your brain by part-taking in certain acts. Pascoe says:
“Oxytocin is released by affectionate touching, stroking and massaging, holding hands, nipple stimulation and coming…. When you’re with someone for a long time, there is less incentive to connect physically; you may take each other’s body for granted but the less you touch, the less bonded you feel, and the less bonded you feel the less you want to touch, and it’s an unfortunate cycle. But knowing about it can help. If you’re having a row with your bae, ask if you can hold hands while you shout, and you’ll find oxytocin makes you conciliatory and less angry.”
And then there’s Dopamine, a chemical that makes you feel happy. Dopamine is released into the brain in a variety of situations, such as doing nice things for someone else or petting an animal. It’s also released artificially by taking cocaine. It’s released when you’re in love, too. Sara Pascoe says:
“This all-encompassing, delicious, dopamine-fueled romantic love is experienced as something you crave and can’t get enough of; you’ll never be full, you’ll never be sated and you’ll never feel more alive. It’s a cascade of chemicals that makes you need to be near your chosen person. It is the exact same brain process as addiction, and that’s how it’s experienced; consuming your attention, taking over your dreams and all your waking thoughts in between.”
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Oxytocin and Dopamine are chemicals that get released into your brain that make you feel good, but that’s not the only kind of chemical involved in love. What about the chemical substances that are released into the environment?
“My wife could turn to me and she may say, ‘Why do you love me?’ and I can with all honesty look her in the eye and say, ‘Because our pheromones matched our olfactory receptors.’ Though I’ll probably say something about her hair and personality as well.”
—Robin Ince, TED Talk: Science Versus Wonder
In The Moaning of Life, Karl Pilkington goes to a singles t-shirt-smelling party in L.A. “Everyone there was sniffing bags searching for a pheromone match,” he recalls in his diary, The Moaning of Life: The Worldly Wisdom of Karl Pilkington. “If you found a smell you liked, it meant you were attracted to that person’s pheromones.” Although one of the good-smelling women there told Pilkington he had good taste but his brain was soft, Pilkington reckons that the nose is a more reliable detector than the eyes. “The number of times my eyes are busy looking at my phone or the newspaper and forget to check on the toast, it’s the nose that says, ‘Your toast is burning!'”
Why would the chemicals emitted by a stranger’s sweat signal to our unconscious mind that that person is or is not a mate for us? Pascoe explains the science behind this theory, although she admits there are just as many books refuting this claim as backing it:
“In pheromone studies they get people to sniff sweaty T-shirts and rate the accompanying photographs for attractiveness and they’ve found that participants are often most attracted to people whose immune system is different from their own. It’s not conscious, but the smell of certain people makes your loins go schwing and it’s claimed that this allure is caused by your body knowing that sex with that partner would produce healthier children with a more varied and effective auto-immune system. It’s real-life sci-fi: we might be able to smell whether we’d have strong, fit children with someone.”
She also points out that we kiss in order to check each other’s genetic compatibility through saliva!
Pheromones have also been allegedly hijacked for other purposes. There is an urban legend that casinos pump pheromones into the air to keep people playing at the table. You can also read in Jon Ronson’s book The Men Who Stare at Goats about the U.S. military’s attempt at chemical warfare using pheromones to create a “gay bomb.” In an episode of The Museum of Curiosity, Ronson summarizes that the gay bomb was “a pheromone that they would drop on the enemy and it would turn the enemy gay…. Like a lot of smell weaponry that they tried over the years, they never managed to get it off the ground.”
Dean Burnett warns us: “While human pheromones are regularly referred to, there’s currently no definitive evidence that humans have specific pheromones that influence attraction and arousal.”
In 2015, there was a study that looked at the gene that relates to how you perceive the smell of androstenone, a pheromone found in pig sweat. In his book A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived, Adam Rutherford says, “We don’t really know what this steroid does in or for people, if anything at all, though it is found in sweat. But if you’re a pig, then it’s the main way you get laid.” So, say what you want about humankind’s relationship to pheromones, it’s definitely a contributing factor with some animals.
The interesting thing about the 2015 study was that it wasn’t looking for whether humans use pheromones for sexual attraction or even how boars might use it. The study looked at whether humans can smell androstenone and what that scent was like. Rutherford says that to some, the smell is sweet, to others it smells like urine, and to others still it smells like nothing at all. “These perceptions are determined by what allele of the OR7D4 gene you carry on your chromosome 19.” Rutherford makes it very clear in his book that we carry leftover Neanderthal genes in us today, as a result of cross-breeding. Looking for an example of Neanderthal genes in the global population today, University of Manchester professor Matthew Cobb looked into the OR7D4 gene in Neanderthals. He discovered that Neanderthals were revolted by the smell of this pig pheromone. If you, too, think it stinks like stale urine, then you have located one part of your genetic makeup that you share with the Neanderthals.
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Nelson Noven is Anglonerd magazine’s science correspondent.
Sources: Idiot Brain: What Your Head Is Really Up to by Dean Burnett [book] Animal: The Autobiography of a Female Body by Sara Pascoe [book] The Moaning of Life: The Worldly Wisdom of Karl Pilkington [book] The Moaning of Life [TV] The Men Who Stare at Goats by Jon Ronson [book] The Museum of Curiosity, season 3, episode 3 [radio] A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived by Adam Rutherford [book]