Valentine's Day

Explaining the Chemistry of Love


By Sam Johnson

     Monday is Valentine's Day.
     As a result, more people will profess their love for one another this weekend than during any other time throughout the year. A great amount of money will be spent on cards, flowers, candy, dinner and gifts as a means of expressing this love.
    
Yet for all the love talk that goes on, the emotion we call love is one of the least understood. Poets have tried to express and explain love since the beginning of time, but not until recently have experts begun to fully understand what makes up the emotion we call love.
    
Over the past decade, scientists and researchers have been busy conducting experiments and surveys to try and discover the true meaning of love. Their results are beginning to explain this mysterious emotion, but even they disagree as to what actually causes love.
    
"It sounds funny to be so precise about something as vague as love," says Arthur Aron, a social psychologist now at Stony Brook University, "but that's just the point. We have been able to ascertain certain qualities of love, and we are getting closer to understanding the causes of it."
    
The mounds of data compiled by these researchers seem to indicate a physiological as well as a psychological basis for the emotion called love.

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The Chemistry of Love
     According to scientists, the lofty emotion of love lauded by poets is actually caused by the release of certain chemicals in the brain.
    
According to Dr. Jacqueline Crawley, Chief of the Laboratory of Behavioral Neurosciences at the National Institute of Mental Health, the body responds to a cue for love in the same fashion it responds when confronted with a bear in a forest.
    
The theory is that when we see the object of our love, our eyes send a message to the brain which calls for the release of a chemical associated with arousal (ACTH). The chemical passes through our bloodstream to the adrenal glands which releases hormones causing the symptoms of "love" -- blushing, rapid heart beat, heavy breathing, sweating.
    
Evidence also suggests that emotions such as grief, anxiety, anger, jealousy, and even exercise or unexpected surprises can deepen the passion, and that people can actually become addicted to the chemical high produced in these ways.
    
A person can literally become "addicted to love."

 The Root of Love
    
According to another set of researchers, primarily psychologists such as Cynthia Hazen, a social psychologist now at Cornell University's College of Human Ecology, the basis of love is not caused by our chemistry, but by our family; specifically, the relationships a person has growing up with his or her parents.
    
Hazen has developed three categories to explain our love lives:
     1). The "secure attachment" in which it is easy to love someone.
     2). The "avoidance attachment" which is a fear of allowing anyone to get too close.
     3). The "anxious attachment" whereby a person wants to cling to or merge with the loved one.

     The researchers found that people falling in these categories tend to show similar family traits and backgrounds. Avoidant lovers had mothers who were demanding but weak, and fathers who weren't caring or loving. Anxious lovers had mothers who were intrusive, and demanding fathers. Secure lovers had healthier relationships with their parents.

Chains of Love
    
And yet a third theory of love espoused by a psychology professor at the University of Minnesota, Ellen Berscheid, finds that passionate or romantic love stems from a break in the "chain of behaviors" we exhibit around our loved ones.
    
This theory states that we tend to follow a set routine of patterned behaviors around the person we love, and that intense emotion comes within the relationship from an interruption to one of the patterns of behaviors ("chains" as she calls them).
    
Examples would include being surprised one morning with breakfast in bed, unexpectedly receiving a gift of flowers, going away for the weekend.
    
According to Berscheid, "The closeness of a relationship is essentially the extent to which one partner can intervene in the other's chains, either helping or hindering."
    
The romance or marriage tends to go sour, says Berscheid, when the novelties either stop, or they stop being novelties and become routine instead.
    
Despite the differences between these theories of love, the research does show a couple things in common. First, that love is an essential human emotion -- both the capacity to feel love and to give love. As the poet said, "To love is to be useful to yourself, to cause love is to be useful to others." And secondly, they indicate that love is enhanced and deepened by unexpected surprises we give to those we love, whether it be a material gift, or an act of kindness. "As you give love, you will have love" wrote Tennyson.
    
Finally, if love is to deepen, these things must happen throughout the year, not just on February 14th.
    
Now that's something to think about!


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